By Andy Pasztor
Debates over ensuring an adequate supply of future airline pilots world-wide increasingly focus on a new variable: proficiency of the flight instructors who will train them.
On Thursday, the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent safety advocacy group with global influence, called for significantly stepped-up international efforts to vet training academies and establish guidelines for the competence of their instructors.
A white paper from the organization contends the global aviation industry has “reached a crossroads in determining how pilots need to be selected, hired, trained and professionally mentored.” For the first time in recent years, the nonprofit foundation based in Alexandria, Va., is urging adoption of what it calls data-driven initiatives relying on advances in simulator training and new international standards for pilot performance.
The document dismisses the value of experience requirements that are based largely or entirely on number of flight hours in log books. To maintain record-low accident rates, the document concludes “the industry needs to be courageous and bold to make these changes and not simply rely on ways of the past.”
The recommendations come at a time of controversy and uncertainty for many pilot training programs. From North America to Europe to fast-growing aviation markets in Asia and elsewhere, airlines and regulators are considering new procedures to screen and train the more-than-600,000 additional aviatorsBoeing Co. projects will be needed to fill airliner cockpits over the next two decades.
In the U.S., lawmakers, carriers, pilot unions and safety experts continue to argue over training changes and potentially lowering minimum experience levels for newly hired co-pilots. To ensure carriers will have an adequate supply of cockpit crews in future years, Congress and industry trade groups are considering proposals to allow co-pilots to start flying passengers with fewer flight hours in their log books than currently allowed.
Newly hired U.S. airline pilots must have at least 1,500 previous flight hours, except for former military pilots or graduates of two- and four-year academic institutions with professional aviation programs.
The white paper isn’t intended to influence the debate over specific hours, but rather to emphasize that the industry “has to go above and beyond” strictly considering the flight time of job candidates, according to John Beatty, the foundation’s president.
“We need a better, holistic approach” to revamp training curricula, Mr. Beatty said in an interview, because “we’re not taking full advantage of all we have learned” over the years from safety-incident analyses, better crew coordination and improved simulator technology.
Instead of merely considering the total number of hours a candidate has sat behind the controls of any aircraft, the recommendations stress that “the type of experience and the flight environment must be considered to provide meaning to the number.” According to the white paper, quality of experience depends on various factors, including single-engine or multi-engine flight time, two-pilot operations and weather-related issues.
Other experts likewise emphasize that maintaining an adequate supply of high-quality instructors is more important than enforcing arbitrary flight-hour requirements for new hires. Recent research conducted by the University of North Dakota, for example, found that many student pilots with 200 to 500 flight hours are “performing from a safety point of view equally or better than” those with the currently mandated 1,500 hours, according to professor James Higgins, chair of the school’s aviation department.
But if Congress eventually cuts back minimum experience requirements for new airline hires, Mr. Higgins said the school likely would more quickly lose many students who now temporarily stay on and work as flight instructors to build up their own hours. “We would lose part of our essential ecosystem,” he said, and resulting instructor shortages also could pose “an existential threat” to many other colleges and universities with longstanding aviation programs.
The group contends some carriers already face a shortage of high-quality candidates, but at this point the association’s proposed changes aren’t part of a pending House bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. Stiff Democratic opposition is likely to keep the association-backed provision from getting on the Senate floor, according to industry and government officials tracking the issue.
Earlier this week, the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, a union with more than 60,000 members across North America, reiterated objections to easing current experience rules. Tim Canoll told a House aviation subcommittee that the 1,500-hour rule ensures newly-hired pilots have adequate exposure to real-world flight challenges, but he said it hasn’t resulted in an industry-wide pilot shortage.
In its recommendations, the Flight Safety Foundation urged national and international aviation authorities to avoid such problems by embracing flexible training programs “that target real-world risk” and “place a high value on the knowledge and experience of instructors.”