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AMERICAN.COM

A Magazine of Ideas

New Flight Rules Are a Heavy Load

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Requiring that pilots have more flight hours may seem like a sensible government action designed to protect us, but the reality is that it will destroy jobs, increase the cost of flying, and result in more people dying in transit.

Rarely does Congress pass legislation so irredeemably flawed that it simultaneously hurts producers and consumers while decreasing safety, but the FAA’s recent implementation of legislation requiring that all pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flight time before sitting in the cockpit of a commercial plane achieves that trifecta.

A provision in the 2010 legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aeronautics Administration increased the flight time requirements for pilots. Families of the 2009 Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, New York, advocated strongly for the provision.

While on a superficial level it may seem absurd to object to more pilot training, and taking exception to the well-meaning intentions of people who are advocating for changes for entirely noble reasons, it doesn’t change the fact that the rule will do little to improve airline safety. This is not a controversial statement — the FAA conceded as much in its original rule issuance: The accident analysis done by the Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention found that only 7 of the 31 accidents reviewed had pilots with less than 1,500 flight hours. In the incident that triggered the new restriction, both the pilot and first officer had more than 1,500 hours of flight time. In fact, in the three most recent major airline crashes both the pilot and first officer had more than 1,500 hours of flight time.

While few lives will be saved in the sky from this rule, it’s a good bet that more people will die because of it in cars.

While the benefits of mandating more training hours are negligible, the costs are anything but. By increasing the training requirements for new pilots, the FAA effectively boosted pilot pay, which was an ancillary goal of the regulation. It is truly unfortunate that new pilots live near penury — the average salary for a newly minted pilot is just $23,000, unchanged in real-dollar terms since the 1990s — but they’re paid that little because the finances of the regional airlines that employ them are typically quite precarious and because lots of people want to be pilots: while starting salaries aren’t much, the potential payoff down the road makes it a career worth trying for many (pilots who make captain at a major airline can earn more than $200,000). And it goes without saying that most people think it’s more fun to fly an airplane than sit at a desk.

The regulation essentially constricts the supply of new pilots by making it cost more to get a license, since 1,500 hours of flight time requires much more time spent in training. The regulation allows certain schools partial exemptions from the 1,500-hour rule — so schools that don’t receive this exemption can expect declining enrollment and may have trouble surviving, while those that do receive an exemption will be able to increase tuition. Higher training costs and fewer flight schools create yet another hurdle for future pilots.

With higher pilot pay resulting from the regulation, ticket prices have to go up as well — at least at the regional airlines that don’t go bankrupt because of this change, which is something else the FAA admitted would occur with greater frequency because of the rule. Florida-based Silver Airways recently became the third U.S. regional carrier, after Republic Airways and Great Lakes Aviation, to report significant service cuts because of the new FAA rule. One carrier described the situation as a “severe industry-wide pilot shortage.”

It’s not just regional airlines and the people in smaller communities whom they serve who are feeling the pinch. Fewer people getting on regional airlines means there are fewer people making their way to major hubs, so the large carriers are being affected too. United Continental recently announced that it would downsize its Cleveland hub by 36 percent because of the regulation, resulting in 1,800 employees losing their jobs. 

In the incident that triggered the new restriction, both the pilot and first officer had more than 1,500 hours of flight time.

While few lives will be saved in the sky from this rule, it’s a good bet that more people will die because of it — in cars. Higher ticket prices and fewer flights will result in more families driving to their destination rather than choosing the safer option of flying. However, highway deaths are something the FAA usually resists taking into account when doing its analysis.

Requiring that pilots have more flight hours may seem like a sensible government action designed to protect us, but the reality is that it will destroy jobs, increase the cost of flying, and result in more people dying in transit.

What happened in the Colgan Air crash was a tragedy, and we should examine how to prevent future crashes of this sort. But mandating more flight training hours does not address the proximate cause of the crash or make travel safer. Policymakers should consider all the costs and benefits of new government regulations.

Ike Brannon is a senior fellow at The George W. Bush Institute and president of Capital Policy Analytics, a consulting firm.

 
FURTHER READING: Mark J. Perry writes "The Cost of Air Travel in the U.S. has Been Remarkably Stable for the Last Decade, and 17% Cheaper than 20 years Ago."  Claude Barfield contributes "The First Carbon Trade War?" Jeffrey Eisenach advises "FCC Should Stop Being In-flight 'Nanny,'" and Timothy P. Carney asks, "Is 'Boeing's Bank' Heading for a Jumbo-jet Bubble?"

 

Image By Meg Bosse / Bergman Group