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UAA pilot students get small break from tough new FAA regulations

Jerzy Shedlock

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration set a new standard for airline copilots, which requires an additional certificate. But in order to get it, aspiring pilots must spend six times as much hours flying under the watchful eye of an instructor, and the University of Alaska Anchorage’s aviation program has taken steps to aid students troubled by the major regulatory change.

As of August, an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate is required for a pilot to serve as first officer for all Part 121 airline operations, the set of aviation regulations that apply to most scheduled passenger flights. Before the new standard kicked in, copilots were allowed to work for those airlines if they had a Commercial Pilot’s License and an Instrument Rating -- trained to fly solely by reference to instruments.

The additional certificate requirement increases the minimum amount of flight time individuals must fly before becoming copilots, called first officers in the aviation industry, from 250 hours to 1,500 hours. The large jump in training hours is the result of the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009, prompted by a deadly winter crash near Buffalo, N.Y. The plane crashed during an instrument approach to Buffalo International Airport, killing all 49 people onboard.

Such a large increase is “beyond individuals’ pocketbooks to accumulate that many flight hours,” said Rocky Capozzi, director of UAA’s Aviation Technology Division. “And the issue has not been fully addressed.”

But UAA is among the first group of universities nationwide granted “institutional authority” from the FAA to certify graduates of its professional piloting programs for the new certificate with fewer flight hours, making it easier to reach the minimum time in the sky needed to get a copilot job.

Graduates holding bachelor's degrees in Aviation Technology with a pro piloting emphasis who’ve earned at least 60 credit hours are eligible to apply for the certificate after 1,000 hours of flight time, rather than the 1,500 hours now required.  Associate degree grads who’ve earned 30 or more applicable credit hours are eligible to apply with 1,250. The applicable courses are approved by the FAA, however. Graduates also must have earned their Commercial Pilot Certificates and Instrument Ratings through the university.

A shrinking pool of applicants

Air carriers at every level will be affected by the recent change. Capozzi said major airlines grab pilots from regional carriers, which grab flight instructors from flight schools battling with the airlines to retain qualified instructors. “There isn’t a sufficient source of professionals to feed that system, and no one’s clear on how that’s going to be done.”

Chief Pilot LaMar Haugaard of Horizon Air, Alaska Airlines' sister company, said the regional carrier looked for copilots with far more hours than the previous minimum -- typically about 750. Pilots with this much experience are generally university grads with a year or two of instruction under their belts.

Those individuals were more than ready for copiloting jobs, Haugaard said. He knows they’re ready because of Auburn University’s “Pilot Source Study.” Alaska Air Group participated in the 2010 study, which concluded pilots trained in accredited aviation university programs have a more solid knowledge base than pilots who don’t go to one of these schools. Basically, they’re ready for the job.

“The new law prohibits (Horizon) from talking to those candidates, and that obviously shrinks the applicant pool,” he said.

Haugaard maintains that the best option for students was to take the flight-instructor route, as UAA students are already encouraged to do. But it may take instructors years to meet the new standards, Haugaard said.

“But if we keep hiring instructors, it’s like eating your own seed,” he said. “We need those instructors to teach new students.”

Most Horizon copilots already on the job simply had to apply for the permits. Their time as first officers counted toward the certificate’s requirements, and many of them have more than 7,000 hours of flying.

Learning to fly

UAA’s professional pilot program averages eight to 10 graduates per year. Aviation Technology also offers degrees in air-traffic control, as well as aviation maintenance and administration. Taken together, all the Aviation Technology programs put degrees and certificates in the hands of 76 graduates last school year.

Fluctuation in the total number of graduates is the norm, however. Learning to fly is difficult, Capozzi said, and “these students are learning the same time they’re full-time college students. It’s very demanding.”

Sixty credits equals about 20 lecture courses. But labs are often only worth one to two credits. For example, to earn an instrument rating, students must complete two courses -- a lecture course and a lab, which includes flight time.

It generally takes a student all four years of the pro pilot program to earn 250 hours of flight time. Opportunities to fly depends on each student's circumstances, Capozzi said. Teachers encourage all students to take the college’s certified-flight-instructor courses, because a student who gets a job doing just that can earn the previous minimum time required for an ATP certificate within 12 months.

The college sometimes hires recent grads as flight instructors, and they’re generally out the door with another job within 18 months, Capozzi said.

As of May 2012, there were 1,310 airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers working in Alaska, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Airlines are closely tied to the state’s economy. Alaska’s largest aviation hub, by far, is Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport, which is directly or indirectly tied to 10 percent of the jobs in Alaska's largest city, according to the airport.

Swift action, slow training

Congressional changes to copilot qualifications have been a hotly debated topic among airlines weary of ill-conceived, stringent requirements and politicians demanding change following the 2009 plane crash in New York.

An audit report on the improvement act came out earlier this year, saying, “The Feb. 12, 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 highlighted the need for improvements in pilot training, hiring, and qualification programs” and ensuring safety standards between carriers.

Congress and the FAA took swift action following the crash to address the issues, culminating in the August 2010 passage of the act.

The act included 16 provisions to improve airline safety and pilot training. In addition to heightened standards, it also requires the FAA to perform annual, random onsite inspections of regional air carriers that contract with outside firms to ensure federal standards are met.

According to the audit, progress has been made, but safety improvements at smaller air carriers have been limited. The audit reported that the new certificate standard would be in place by August, so it seems that one of the behind-schedule portions of the act has caught up.

The audit’s authors also noted air carrier reps remained opposed to the 1,500-hour rule because they feel “a pilot’s quality and type of flying experience should be weighed more heavily than the number of flight hours.”

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms