(CNN) — Federal authorities have firmly rejected an airline’s controversial request to halve hiring standards for commercial pilots to tackle the global pilot shortage.
In April, regional carrier Republic Airways petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to allow graduates from Republic-owned LIFT Academy to become airline co-pilots with 750 hours of flight experience, not the typical 1,500 hours required for new airline pilots.
On Monday, the FAA said it denied Republic’s request after the agency “determined that the airline’s new training program did not provide an equivalent level of safety as the rule requiring 1,500 hours of flight experience before a pilot is allowed to work for an airline.” .
Republic is an Indianapolis-based regional airline that claims to operate 1,000 daily flights for American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express.
What Republic Airways wanted
Republic, in its first request to the FAA, claimed that its internal training program met the rigorous requirements of military flight training. Therefore, the airline said, an FAA regulation allowing military pilots to be hired by airlines with less experience should be extended to the Republic.
“Through its rigorous curriculum and structure, this program will exceed military R-ATP safety standards [training program]’ Republic argued, adding that its program would ‘provide a higher level of security’.
The curriculum includes instruction and flight time, mentoring and frequent exams. Failing a test, Republic suggested, would put a student on the normal path to a 1,500-hour license.
Graduates who would have received a special pilot license under this program would then have received a full license upon reaching 1,500 hours.
Republic argued its program would increase diversity in the ranks of pilots. Accumulating the 1,500 hours typically involves a college degree, low-wage work, and hiring planes to fly — an expense that can cost anywhere from $170,000 to $220,000, according to Republic.
“The cost of a four-year degree can be a significant barrier for some high-quality students, making pilot training unattainable, particularly for those in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities,” Republic’s proposal reads.
The Regional Airline Association, which represents the Republic and its partner airlines, had supported the Republic’s proposal. Approving the program would recognize “that flight time is not the only component to developing a safe and skilled pilot.”
Faye Malarkey Black, CEO and president of the association, issued the following statement Monday in response to the FAA’s decision:
“We are still reviewing the FAA’s decision. It is the mission of all airlines to have robust safety programs and continually improve flight training.
Safety must come first. Expanding structured training pathways would improve access for people who don’t have access to a pilot’s career today.”
Union rejects plan
The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots’ union, had strongly opposed the Republic’s program.
“This decision is a huge win for aviation safety and for the flying public,” ALPA President Capt. Joe DePete said in a statement Monday afternoon.
“The FAA’s findings confirm what we have been saying all along about the Republic’s request – that it is not in the public interest and would compromise safety.”
“Furthermore, in its official rejection of the petition, the FAA reiterated its support for the existing regulatory requirement to facilitate pilot qualification – the Air Safety Act, which has reduced aviation fatalities by 99.8 percent since its inception.”
The US requirement of 1,500 hours is far higher than the entry level in many other countries. The Department of Transportation’s inspector general wrote in a report earlier this year that 18 out of 29 countries it reviewed require first officers to have just 240 hours.
The United States used to have a lower requirement for co-pilots – 250 hours – but lawmakers raised the bar after the 2009 Colgan Air crash that killed 50 people. Investigators said the pilots of the commuter plane failed to properly recognize and respond to the plane, which stalled a few miles from Buffalo-Niagara International Airport.
Opponents of reducing first officer hours include Sully Sullenberger, the retired airline captain who famously landed a US Airways jet on the Hudson River in New York.
“There are no shortcuts to experience. There is no shortcut to safety. The standards are the standards because they are necessary,” he told a congressional panel in 2015.