Safety first

HERO: Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III is criticizing attempts to weaken pilot-training requirements.
HERO: Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III is criticizing attempts to weaken pilot-training requirements. GETTY

It’s one thing to have to suffer poorly trained wait staff or customer-service reps. It’s wholly another issue when that inadequately prepared person is your pilot.

No matter. Regional airline carriers are pushing Congress to — phony euphemism alert! — “refine” the training requirements for their pilots.

Those who oppose the move say that the word “weaken” is much closer to the truth.

We have to agree. If there’s one area in which consumers should not be worried about the capabilities of its practitioners — healthcare being another that comes to mind — it’s commercial aviation. Air travel has become an increasingly stressful endeavor, especially since 9/11. Passengers should not also have to worry about the competence of their pilot.

The Regional Airline Association says that the more-stringent training rules, which require 1,500 hours of flight time to earn a pilot transport license, have affected the quality and the quantity of the new pilots who want to fly for regional carriers. The Federal Aviation Administration tightened requirements after the 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, in which 50 people died when the plane, flying from Newark to Buffalo, went down.

According to a report in The Buffalo News, the association’s interim president testified in a recent hearing of a U.S. Senate aviation subcommittee that the requirement “favors candidates who have amassed 1,500 hours over candidates who have undertaken academic pathways through their piloting career but not amassed the 1,500 hours.”

However, it’s troubling to suggest that academic training should be given more weight than practical, in-the-cockpit experience. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that Flight 3407 crashed because of the pilot’s inability to prevent the plane from going into a stall as it was approaching the airport. The plane had reached a speed that was dangerously low.

The crash victims’ survivors lobbied Congress to enact rules for regional carriers that were more stringent and to impose more scrutiny on operating procedures and pilot working conditions. This resulted in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administrative Extension Act of 2010.

Regional carriers blame a shortage of pilots on the stricter rules. However, neither New York Sen. Charles Schumer nor Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, who pulled off the USAirways “Miracle on the Hudson” water landing and saved the lives of 155 people, were buying it. Mr. Schumer said that he would urge his colleagues to “flatly reject” the industry’s efforts.

Capt. Sullenberger pointed to the low salary earned by regional pilots who bear so much responsibility as a major turnoff. He said at the hearing that the pilot of doomed Flight 3407 earned a $16,400 salary. In 2015 dollars, that’s just a bit more than the $15,930 that qualifies as poverty wages for a family of two, according the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

The impact of a lack of pilots for regional carriers is real, as mandatory retirements thin out the pilot ranks and younger pilots decide to fly for the military or work abroad for more money.

The FAA is up for reauthorization this year, and safety advocates fear that there is a chance that the pilot-training requirements will be weakened. But Congress should stand firm and put the responsibility for the woes of regional carriers back on the industry itself.

Anything less will compromise safety in the skies.