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New Airline Pilot Rules Approved by Congress

In February of 2009, a commuter plane crashed near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Forty-nine passengers and crew were killed as well as one person on the ground. Initially, ice buildup was suspected in the crash, but a report by The New York Times indicates that the National Traffic Safety Board’s (NTSB) analysis shows ice was not a prominent factor in the crash. Instead, it appears pilot error is to blame.

The NTSB report concluded that the pilot of Continental Flight 3407 did not react properly to a warning that his plane was slowing down too quickly and entering a stall. The report noted that the pilot’s reaction was “consistent with startle and confusion” as the pilot pulled on the plane’s control mechanism when pushing on it would have kept the plane in flight.

Regional Carrier Safety Issues

As the demand for regional or “short-haul” flights increased, more airlines hired regional carriers to fill the gaps, according to the Associated Press (AP). These flights make up more than 50 percent of domestic airline flights. The AP report also notes that the last six fatal airplane crashes in the United States involved regional carriers for major airlines.

Motivated by the crash of Flight 3407 and the increased demand for regional carriers, Congress passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. President Obama signed the bill into law in August.

As reported by the Associated Press, major provisions of the bill include:

  • Ensure that the FAA limits pilots’ workloads, which take into account modern research on sleep schedules and fatigue. These rules have not been updated in over 20 years despite the urging of the NTSB.
  • Increase the minimum flight experience necessary to be a first officer by six times. Currently, 250 hours is required, but the new rules would boost that total to 1,500, requiring regional airlines to hire more experienced pilots. This puts the number of minimum flight hours in line with first officers at major carriers.
  • Require better testing and training programs for pilots. The NTSB has recommended that airlines provide additional training for pilots who have difficulty flying skills tests or make in-flight mistakes.
  • Require that the FAA impose new regulations governing pilot mentoring programs within three years. Modifications to existing training and leadership programs would also be necessary.

According to the legislation, the FAA would have three years in which to implement these requirements.