EDITORIAL: ALPA Misleads On Safety, And It’s Hurting US Small Community Service

Credit: Aaron Burden-Unsplash

US regional airlines are struggling to acquire or keep the number of pilots they need to maintain service to the small American communities they typically serve.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) which represents almost 70,000 pilots across North America, says there is no pilot shortage, just a lack of a viable pay structure at regional carriers.

The union points to FAA numbers showing 8,823 newly certificated commercial pilots were produced in the 12 months to July. But the Regional Airline Association rightly counters that pilot production plunged during 2020 and 2021, leading to a large certification backlog that is manifesting in stronger-than-usual pilot production numbers. For example, the number of Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certifications issued per year declined to below 5,000 in 2021, compared to an average of 6,335 for the past decade.

ALPA repeatedly frames this as a safety rather than a shortage problem, without evidence.

But regional airlines like SkyWest Airlines and Republic Airways are battling shortages and proposing rational programs that would allow them to grow their first officer new hires. ALPA says this is an attempt to skirt the 1,500-hour requirement for first officers that Congress enacted in 2010 after the fatal crash of a commuter aircraft in Buffalo, New York.

But where’s the proof? The first officer of the Colgan Air turboprop had logged 2,244 flight hours, so hours were not a factor (pilot fatigue was deemed a contributing cause in the investigation).

No other country’s aviation authority has adopted the FAA rule; almost all—including those of the European Union and Canada—have first officer requirements of around 250 hours—much closer to where the US stood before the law change. And the aircraft—and first officers—of all those countries fly in and out of US airports every day. If 1,500 hours—so arbitrarily picked—makes America’s skies so much safer, why doesn’t the rule also apply to those foreign carriers?

A major difference is how the qualifying flight hours are defined. Other regulatory authorities insist those hours are specific to airline training and operations, which makes safety sense. Would-be American first officers, by contrast, can count all kinds of flying toward their qualifying hours, including in Piper Cubs and—unbelievably—hot air balloons. Many do build up their hours this way because the 1,500-hour rule makes it so time-consuming and expensive to do otherwise. This makes the 1,500-hour rule more a case of quantity over quality.

Small US communities are losing air service because of a shortage of pilots. The 1,500-hour rule makes the problem harder to address, not necessarily safer.

Pilots, including new first officers, should be properly compensated and properly trained. ALPA is right to advocate for its members. But the union would do well to talk less hot air about safety and more constructively on ways the US regional air transport system can be restored and secured. And crucially, US Congress should repeal the 1,500-hour rule before the communities its lawmakers represent find themselves without air service.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.