Senate Amendment Could Alter 1,500-hour Pilot Rule

Sen. John Thune’s proposal fuels speculation about future airline pilot qualifications.

John Thune
Sen. John Thune (pictured at the Lennox, SD 4th of July parade) issued a proposal to amend the 1,500-hour requirement for airline pilot hiring in the Senate's FAA Reauthorization Bill.John Thune/Twitter

Third-ranking Senate Republican John Thune of South Dakota added a proposal to the recently-introduced FAA reauthorization bill hoping to amend the 1,500-hour requirement for airline pilot hiring. The rule, enacted in July 2013, requires Part 121 airline new hires to qualify for an ATP certificate before starting work. Thune says he believes what he calls a "narrow revision" to the law "preserves the strong safety demands of the original law, but will offer ways to make it easier for regional airlines to hire copilots."

Thune said his amendment will focus on the quality of pilot training hours over quantity included in the current law. Thune said any revisions to the rule would need to pass safety muster by the FAA.

The proposal could allow pilots to receive credit for academics gathered from unaccredited institutions and possibly while in training at the airlines. Critics interpreted the possible changes to mean future pilots could be hired based on “time spent watching videos in a classroom.”

New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, a sponsor of the original 1,500-hour rule, called it “unthinkable” that anyone would try to water down the FAA’s qualification standards, while his Senate associate, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, said she’d use every tool in her arsenal to defeat Thune’s amendment.

The fact that Thune’s proposal left out specifics on how his updates might be implemented didn’t stop critics from creating a variety of narratives supporting the case for leaving the original law untouched. The Air Line Pilots Association held a news conference last Tuesday during which association president Tim Canoll appeared with family members of those lost in the 2009 Colgan Flight 3407 crash to demand the law remain intact.

The Buffalo News recently published an unconfirmed document, Legislative Concepts to Address Pilot Shortage – Funding for Pilot Training, reportedly detailing how Thune's amendment might work.

ALPA believes, “with a solid foundation of training and experience, pilots are essential in maintaining the safety of our system and ensuring that aviation safety continues to advance. Between 1990 and 2009, more than 1,100 people died on Part 121 passenger airlines. Since new pilot training and qualification requirements were passed by Congress in 2010, the United States has not experienced a single fatality on these carriers.”

Some experts acknowledged only a coincidence between the law, the date of its implementation and accidents, but there is no factual evidence proving the law is responsible for the improved safety.