I may have been wrong.
We now appear to be headed for some of the most sweeping regulatory changes the industry has seen since deregulation, or the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 before it.
The FAA has convened an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to rewrite the regulations concerning crewmembers' flight time, duty time, and required rest periods. The committee, which is comprised of FAA, industry, and labor representatives, started meeting in early July and has been given a September 1st deadline to make a recommendation to the FAA. Administrator Babbitt has stated that he wishes to have new regulations in place by the end of the year. The Air Transportation Association and other industry groups are rather wisely supporting the aggressive rewrite, in public at least. These are the same airlines that sued the FAA earlier this year to halt a very modest rewrite of rest rules for flights over 16 hours.
The few rumors to emerge from the ARC thus far indicate that maximum duty time will decrease by several hours, weekly and monthly duty time may be restricted, rest periods will be lengthened or will reflect time actually at the layover (right now transportation to and from the hotel is considered "rest"), and maximum duty time may be limited for late afternoon and evening show times. Work is reportedly proceeding very quickly and the airline industry participants have not stonewalled and created deadlock as happened in several past ARCs.
Meanwhile, the members of the House of Representatives' Aviation Subcommittee have introduced bipartisan legislation H.R.3371, "Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009." It goes to the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee tomorrow, and if approved there, on to the full House sometime after the August recess. A corresponding bill has not yet been introduced at the Senate's aviation subcommittee, but based on statements from both the majority and minority leaders during the June hearings I don't doubt that one will be forthcoming.
The full bill isn't yet available to the public, but the summary linked to above contains the following high points:
- Require all airline pilots, not just Captains, to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate (1500 hours total time, among other requirements).
- Establish tougher screening criteria for airline pilot interviews.
- Create a Pilot Records Database to include licenses, ratings, check rides, and "pink slips," both from the FAA and employers, to be used for hiring purposes only.
- Require mentoring programs for new-hire pilots and command/leadership for Captain upgrades.
- Require stall recovery training at the airlines, and forms a FAA task force to study requiring training in stick pusher usage.
- Study whether the airlines' new hire and recurrent programs provide enough time to cover the necessary subjects in great enough detail.
- Require the FAA to implement new flight time and duty rules within one year.
- Requires air carriers to create FAA-approved fatigue management systems.
- Require websites that sell tickets to disclose who actually operates a flight on the first page that flight is displayed on.
First, there is no doubt in my mind that every pilot sitting up front on a Part 121 airliner should have an ATP. For most of the industry's history this hasn't even been an issue. Even back in the late 1990s when the major airlines had multiple years of record hiring and the turnover at the regional airlines was huge, your resumé wouldn't even get looked at if you didn't have ATP minimums. A few years of hard work flight instructing and freight dogging was the norm, and the regionals enjoyed a steady stream of experienced newhires. The conditions of 2005-2007, where it was possible to get hired at many regionals with little more than a fresh commercial certificate, were the direct result of the destruction wreaked upon the piloting profession in the post-9/11 era. There were still plenty of pilots out there with more than ATP minimums, there were just very few willing to prostitute themselves for poverty-level wages and the eventual chance of being hired by one of the major airlines (which themselves had become much less lucrative). Rather than offer higher wages and threaten their business model, regional airline management conveniently took the view that experience doesn't matter, and their major airline partners looked the other way. Well, experience does matter, and if the airlines aren't willing to do what it takes to attract experienced pilots, Congress is entirely right to force it on them.
I've already heard objections to this by some pilots, mostly those without ATP minimums or who were originally hired with low time. I say putting in another year or two of entry level work isn't going to bankrupt anyone - it generally pays as well or better than first year regional wages - and the experience will serve them well throughout their career. It will also weed out less committed pilots, tightening the job market and giving pilots the leverage to make a livable wage at the regional airlines. Heck, the increased labor costs at the regionals could even destroy this accursed two-tier system that was destroying their careers before they even began.
An electronic pilot records database is a welcome and overdue replacement for the inefficient mish-mash verification system in place now. Right now the airlines use a FAA database to verify certificates, type ratings, and medicals, and check whether enforcement action has ever been taken against the candidate. They then contact the candidates' previous employers for the last five years to verify that the candidate's employment, training records, and check for flying-related disciplinary actions; if the previous employer is out of business or doesn't bother to forward the records, the hiring carrier assumes everything is OK. They check the National Drivers Records database for prior DUIs or DWIs. Otherwise, they simply rely on the candidate's word regarding FAA or Part 141 checkride busts, accidents/incidents, and training or disciplinary events at employers more than five years ago. Obviously in this digital age there is a better way to do this. Many pilots will complain that airlines might not hire them based on a long-ago Private Pilot checkride bust but that's simply not true: most airlines today ask about checkride failures and are mostly concerned about a pattern of failures. Presumably they're truthfully answering the questions on the application, so why object to a database that verifies the information they willingly give the airline?
The hiring & training items - pre-employment screening, mentoring & command/leadership programs, stall recovery/stick pusher training, and study of whether airlines alot enough time for training - are all things that the major airlines and the "better" regionals do already. This is really aimed at some of the smaller or more cost-obsessed regionals who have been trying to eke by with the legal minimum. It's a recognition that safety programs and training are not the place to compete on costs.
The requirement that the FAA publish new flight and duty regulations within one year strikes me as odd given that it's well known that such regulations are in the works right now. I suspect this was inserted to put the industry groups on notice that foot-dragging and stonewalling will not be tolerated this time around. The requirement for airlines to create FAA-approved fatigue management systems is intriguing to me, I'd like to hear the details. Depending on how it's structured, it could become either a meaningless formality or a forced change to the airlines' "our crews are legal, therefore they're safe" approach to fatigue.
The final item, requiring ticket sellers to disclose who really operates a flight before the customer selects that departure, seems reasonable from a public-right-to-know standpoint, but I doubt it will actually affect many passengers' purchasing habits. At best it makes the airlines slightly more sensitive to negative publicity concerning safety programs and practices, making the adoption of voluntary programs like ASAP and FOQA more likely. In reality all the major websites (Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, Hotwire) already make this information readily available before booking, although sometimes not on the first page.
My reaction to the new rest regulations will have to wait for when the FAA actually publishes a Notice of Proposed Rule Making, but based on what we're hearing it sounds like the rules will address the most egregious scheduling practices at the airlines today. Unfortunately it will significantly decrease pay and even time off at some airlines, particularly at those regionals without rigs or daily minimums in their contracts. That's a pill I'm willing to swallow in exchange for a safety improvement we've been demanding for so long, plus the fact that these rules will likely force airlines to increase staffing, putting many currently-furloughed pilots back to work.
Obviously none of this is set in stone; I don't doubt that as the airline industry remains supportive in public, they are furiously lobbying against these changes both at the FAA and Congress. We'll see just how much of this actually makes its way into law. That said, there's more momentum for substantial change than anytime in recent history, and I'm guardedly optimistic.