Thune Amendment Generates Emotional, Not Factual Responses

Industry could miss opportunity for a practical solution to the pilot shortage.

John Thune
Critics of Sen. John Thune's (R-SD) amendment to the Airline Safety Enhancement Act want it to die a quick death in the name of aviation safety.John Thune/Twitter

When Sen. John Thune (R-SD) suggested an amendment to the Airline Safety Enhancement Act, he thought creating a better qualifier for new airline pilots rather than "checking the box" because that aviator had reached 1,500 hours of logged flying time was a good idea. Critics, however, want Thune's proposal to die a quick death, all in the name of aviation safety.

The 1,500-hour rule ignited a firestorm of criticism long before it became law following the 2009 Colgan crash in Buffalo. It was called a solution in search of a problem, primarily because the two pilots aboard the Colgan Q400 turboprop already possessed much more than 1,500 hours. Fatal accidents also occurred prior to Buffalo in which both pilots also held significantly more flight time than 1,500 hours, confirming the 1,500-hour rule would have changed nothing had it been in place prior to the 2009 accident.

The law was created from the anguish of dozens of family members of Buffalo victims lobbying Congress for action. But fixing one problem, especially when Congress is the fixer, often creates a fresh one. For the regional airline industry, the result was an ever-decreasing supply of pilots, a problem Senator Thune hoped to possibly remedy.

Thune’s amendment called for inserting this text into the Airline Safety Enhancement Act: "Section 217 (d) of the airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 is amended, in the second sentence, by striking "training course" and all that follows and inserting "training courses, or other structured and disciplined training courses, will enhance safety more than requiring the pilot to fully comply with the flight hours requirement."

The Senator's office confirmed to Flying last week no other documents were created to explain precisely how the "other structured and disciplined training courses," would or could be created, only a requirement that any suggestions pass FAA muster about their safety enhancing properties.

Over the past 10 days, voices from all sides of the aviation industry and Congress have chewed on those 50-odd words of the Senator’s proposal and spit out a variety of conclusions, none based in fact.

On its website, ALPA said, “The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l is extremely disappointed with today’s passage of an amendment in the Senate Commerce Committee that will weaken airline pilot training, qualification, and experience requirements put in place by Congress in 2010 to make flying safer in the wake of more than 30 airline accidents. Those who supported this amendment will be responsible for endangering the flying public, should it become law … This amendment is being promoted by companies that are attempting an end run around the safety regulations in order to lower workforce costs and line their own pockets. The traveling public should consider what these Senators have done to jeopardize safety.” There was no explanation from ALPA on how suggesting a system based on quality, not simply quantity of hours would weaken airline pilot training.

In an editorial, the Buffalo News said the airlines should, "Compete in the free market by incentivizing workers, not by cutting corners and settling on acceptable risk." No explanation there on the risk being created by the Senator's quality versus quantity idea. The Chicago Tribune's Robert Reed said, "I doubt the flying public would agree to deeply discount their own safety by letting the government hack away at an essential industry standard designed to protect flyers from inexperienced pilots." Reed never explained where the hacking might occur, although he did later add that "… it doesn't make sense to offer pilots a shortcut at the beginning of a career, when professional seasoning is arguably needed the most." Experts would call Reed's seasoning comment out as one reason to support Thune's call to at least consider alternative possibilities. Reed said Thune's proposal should not be allowed to get off the ground, the kind of black and white thinking that might be expected under a Congressional mandate.

Even Capt. Sully jumped into the debate. The Tribune also published one of his tweets: "Regional airline lobbyists argue for weaker standards, making flying less safe for passengers and all of us." No explanation of how. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said, "there's a range of possibilities, including looking at training videos in hotel ballrooms. If we vote for this, we will be writing future regulations in blood." There is of course, also the possibility the people setting up the videos in hotel ballrooms might be aliens (I made up the part about the aliens).

No one wants to see a degradation in aviation safety in any part of the industry and certainly we should keep an eye on the regional airline industry recently dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiating table to raise pilot wages. Thune’s amendment is literally calling for an FAA-sanctioned qualitative looksee at how we hire pilots. But if the people who claim the only way to ensure aviation safety is to hold fast to a Congressional rule forced down the industry’s throat a few years ago rather than even consider the possibility of a system that would also consider the quality of a pilot’s experience the way any normal flight department manager would during a job interview, then we also need to be clear about which side is endangering the flying public.