Fast Five: Republic CEO On FAA Denial Of Pilot Training Exemption
Hours after the FAA denied Republic Airways’ petition to have its Leadership In Flight Training (LIFT) Academy viewed as equivalent to U.S. military instruction for commercial pilot licensing purposes, exempting LIFT graduates from the so-called 1,500-hr. rule, Republic CEO and President Bryan Bedford met with Aviation Week editors Ben Goldstein, Sean Broderick and Joe Anselmo to discuss what it means for regional carriers as they grapple with a severe pilot shortfall.
What’s your reaction to the FAA’s decision to deny Republic’s exemption request? We were disappointed that it was rejected but not terribly surprised. We’ve seen others put forth exemption requests in the past that were rejected, so we knew it was going to be a heavy lift. But the hope was that we were doing something different than what we had seen in previous petitions looking for relief. We actually had substantial data—years of data—that bears out our case. We just wish the FAA would have actually done the work to see whether what we were proposing made sense. We never heard from them. No one from the FAA ever came out to Indianapolis to visit the LIFT Academy. What we were proposing was just rejected.
How has the 1,500-hr. rule affected the skills and readiness level of new-hire pilots at Republic in the years following its 2013 enactment? We first started to see the effect in our own training programs around 2014, when the first set of 1,500-hr. pilots were coming through the program. And our failure rates were just skyrocketing, to the point where even I was surprised at just how poorly these kids were doing. But the reality is, they were so far removed from the actual training environment—from all the time spent going out and burning holes in the sky. None of us had really conceived how poorly they were going to perform when they came back to us. That’s when we first started thinking about the LIFT Academy. We began to realize that we can’t just rely on the market to deliver us pilots. Now, the first class of LIFT students from the fall of 2018 are finally coming into Republic—that was slowed by a year or two due to COVID—and these kids are excellent.
What did your pilot group think of the proposal? The one labor union that didn’t file a negative comment was our pilots’ union. You know why? Because they’ve seen the results of what we’re doing. They’re not prepared to get out and support it, but they certainly weren’t willing to take the cheap shot and say it wasn’t a good program. Because they see our students matriculate through the mainline, and they’re providing feedback to augment the training program. But we realize we could still do even more with that process, and that’s why we wanted to add more structure to the program to replicate what the military is doing. We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars on LIFT. The only reason we would spend even more money is if we felt there was some return on that investment, and that return has to be through fewer time-building hours.
How does this effort tie into the push to enhance diversity in the cockpit? The industry’s performance on color and gender in the cockpit has flatlined for the past decade. We haven’t moved the needle a bit. And why is that? It’s because the families can’t afford this career pathway. It’s unobtainable, and no one is doing anything to make it more affordable. If we can, and they begin to see people that look like themselves succeed in this career path, that will encourage more diverse students to make the attempt.
You’ve warned that the regional pilot shortage could lead to a loss of air service for small communities. Will that get policymakers to act? That may be the only thing that will move the needle. Over the summer, we heard [U.S. Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg say during a Senate hearing that there is a national pilot shortage. And he agreed that it’s disproportionately impacting regional airlines and causing a loss of service to small communities. I really thought that was the watershed moment that we needed to enable this dialog to resonate. It’s disappointing that it didn’t. But the problem articulated in that Senate hearing is ever-looming, and we will continue to see the negative effects on small communities. It’s just disappointing that we’re going to take people off airplanes and put them on the highway for a long drive to get to whatever the next airport is. We could do better as a country and should do better.