The Federal Aviation Administration rejected a proposal by a major regional airline to cut in half the number of hours its pilots would need to obtain licenses, the agency said Monday, refusing to grant an exemption to safety rules with potentially far-reaching implications.
Republic Airways, which operates flights for major airline brands, filed a petition in April seeking to put its pilot school on equal footing with military aviation training. Former military pilots can earn a limited qualification to fly airliners with 750 hours of experience, compared to the 1,500 hours typically required of civilians.
The 1,500-hour rule has been questioned since it was imposed in 2013 in response to a crash that killed 50 people. Supporters of the rule say it improves safety by ensuring airline pilots have significant experience, but regional airlines that serve smaller markets say it makes it more difficult to find qualified recruits - an acute issue as the industry recovers from the pandemic.
In its decision, the FAA said it concluded that Republic’s proposed training would not be equivalent to military training, which involves flying high-performance aircraft in challenging situations. The airline’s proposal, the agency said, “is not in the public interest and would adversely affect safety.”
The FAA also said that if it granted Republic’s request, other airlines would come forward with similar requests, and setting a precedent could result in sweeping changes to the 1,500-hour system.
“The FAA supports the regulatory requirements that are in place to facilitate the qualification of pilots, and the FAA maintains that the exemption process is not the correct avenue to change the current manner of pilot preparation,” the agency wrote in its decision.
Republic did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the FAA’s decision. Bryan Bedford, the airline’s chief executive, was being interviewed by a Politico reporter when the FAA decision was announced, calling it “unsurprising but disappointing.”
The airline operates a fleet of 200 Embraer jets, conducting about 1,000 flights a day on behalf of the regional brands of American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. In its original petition, Republic cast the request as an opportunity to boost diversity among the ranks of pilots, creating a lower-cost way to get qualified.
“Sluggish industry progress toward diversification of cockpit participation calls for a renewed industry-wide commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Republic wrote. “This is clearly a broken pipeline.”
The petition was being closely watched by other airlines, labor groups and lawmakers. The Regional Airline Association trade group weighed in to support Republic, while the Air Line Pilots Association urged the FAA to stick by the 1,500-hour rule.
The association has blamed difficulty recruiting pilots for service cuts to rural communities, a number of which have lost commercial service entirely in recent years. In formal comments to the FAA, it argued that Republic’s approach would produce safer pilots than would requiring a set number of flight hours. The association said Monday it was reviewing the FAA’s decision.
“It is the mission of all airlines to have robust safety programs and to improve flight training on a continuous basis,” said Faye Malarkey Black, the association’s chief executive. “The first focus must be safety. Expanding structured training pathways would improve access for people who can’t access a pilot career today.”
The FAA questioned the evidence for a link between pilot flying time requirements and airlines’ recruitment pipelines, adding that it wasn’t the agency’s responsibility to resolve airlines’ hiring challenges.
“The FAA has previously concluded that the argument that an exemption would serve to address a pilot shortage is overly simplistic,” the agency wrote.
While the FAA’s ruling indicates the agency won’t entertain efforts to find ways around the 1,500-hour rule, debate over the requirement is likely to continue. The rule was imposed by Congress, which is set to reconsider a host of aviation laws next year.
Lawmakers are also exploring other ways to boost the supply of pilots, with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and other Republicans proposing raising the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 67.