Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said Congress required 1,500 hours of flight time for all airline pilots to improve safety after the Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash in February 2009, which killed 50 people. First officers could be hired previously with 250 hours of experience.
Six senators had asked Bruce Landsberg, President Trump’s nominee to join the National Transportation Safety Board, in a letter before the hearing why he criticized the 1,500-hour rule repeatedly as a longtime official at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
“Congress has given NTSB a unique mission to prioritize safety above all other concerns,” said Duckworth, herself a former military pilot. “And NTSB’s role in providing clear guidance to Congress and the public on what is the safest course of action, irrespective of costs or political hurdles, is incredibly valued.”
Landsberg, a former Air Force flight instructor, said he has worked for decades on safety issues, helping the Federal Aviation Administration and the safety board identify reasons for fatal accidents and working to prevent them.
But Landsberg disagreed with setting an arbitrary requirement for flight experience. Each of the Colgan pilots had more than 1,500 hours of experience at the time of the crash, but the captain’s poor airmanship, crew distraction, complacency and fatigue led to the tragedy, Landsberg said.
“I believe in performance-based regulation as opposed to an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all rule,” Landsberg said.
The clash over the training rule echoed a contentious debate the Senate Transportation Committee already fought over FAA policy. Regional airlines contend the training requirement has made it difficult to staff flights, while pilot unions say better pay would boost recruitment. Relatives of the Colgan victims oppose any softening of the rule.
The panel voted narrowly in June to allow the FAA to count classroom education toward the 1,500-hour requirement. But the full Senate hasn’t debated that legislation and it’s unclear whether the issue will affect Landsberg’s nomination.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who led the hearing, said the panel is expected to vote soon on Landsberg and other nominees.
The NTSB investigates crashes and makes non-binding recommendations to other government agencies and private industry about how to avoid them in the future.
The FAA adopts safety rules, including provisions in the flight-experience rule allowing 750 hours for military pilots and 1,000 hours for graduates for four-year colleges.
Duckworth said the lack of airline fatalities in the last eight years, compared with 154 in the eight years leading up to the Colgan crash, demonstrated the benefit of the 1,500-hour rule. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta reiterated in September that the rule made the system safer.
When pilots only needed 250 hours to be hired at airlines, that included 50 hours cross-country, 10 flying solely with instruments and five at night, she said. The rule required 500 hours cross-country, 75 on instruments and 100 at night, she said.
“Classroom training is not a substitute for split-second decisions required to operate safely,” Duckworth said. “This is why it’s been safer since the 1,500 hour rule was put into effect.”
Landsberg said all pilots must face the same certification requirements, but they could take different paths to prove their skills, just as members of other professions don’t all go to the same schools.
“I don’t want this to be construed as I’m not in favor of high standards. I am,” Landsberg said. “But I think it becomes no degradation of safety — that’s my litmus test — that people can meet the performance requirements as opposed to just saying you have to have 1,500 hours no matter what.”
(Bart Jansen - USA Today)