United, Delta and American Airlines customers may soon have a scary dilemma

Some say this would be a very positive step to expand travel. Others will be extremely wary.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Regional relaxation?

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Flying peacefully involves not thinking too much.

If you spend any time considering you're in a vast metal tube 36,000 feet in the air, you won't sit back and relax.

If you spend any time thinking about whether the plane was correctly maintained, you can't be peaceful.

And if you wonder about where the pilots were the previous night, your nerves might quake a touch.

You get on a plane and you trust that everything will be alright. 

A current concern, though, is that there aren't enough pilots. Every commercial airline is looking for more, but training them takes time and most of those trainee pilots need to complete 1,500 hours in the air.

Now Republic Airways has petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration for an exemption to reduce that number. By half.

You might not be familiar with Republic, but it's responsible for regional flights under the aegis of United, Delta, and America Airlines.

So when you book a flight with one of those airlines, you might actually be on a Republic plane. 

Republic now wants permission to reduce the number of hours prospective first officers need, via its own Restricted Airline Transport Pilot Certificate program. This, it claims, will "provide the benefits and rigorous curriculum and structure of the military-based pathways training."

Republic leans heavily on its idea of fostering diversity. Specifically, it says it will allow those who don't have the financial means or academic qualifications to become pilots under the current system.

I sense some customers, though, may have qualms. If you know your pilot has only achieved half the hours that were previously required, there'll be inevitable trepidation.

To which Republic retorts that its new training program "would have no adverse impact on safety, and will provide a higher level of safety."

You might wonder, though, why 1,500 hours became the standard. Is it like the somewhat mythical 10,000 steps to maintain health?

It was introduced in 2013, as a reaction to a 2009 crash of a plane flying for regional airline Colgan Air. The captain was accused of not demonstrating appropriate reactions and a subsequent investigation showed that his training may have been inadequate. 50 people died in the crash.

Before this rule, qualification to become a first officer comprised simply having a commercial pilot license. That required a mere 250 hours in the sky.

Currently, many aspiring pilots get their qualifications from commercial flight schools. Many become flight instructors in order to build up their hours. Others fly crop dusters and planes that drag fascinating banners behind them.

Republic contends that its training will be more strenuous and more appropriate for flying a commercial plane.

Other countries don't have the same stringent rules as the US. In Europe, for example, commercial pilots may have as little as 200 hours of flying time.

But at the heart of the problem is that, during the pandemic, airlines offered many older pilots early retirement. 4,400 walked away, which allowed the airlines to get government money. Now, as business picks up, they have neither the pilots nor the pilot trainers to fly an increased number of flights.

And where do the big airlines hire their pilots? Why, a lot of them come from the regional airlines.

Many in the know feel it's unlikely the FAA will accede to Republic's petition. Flight safety again became a contentious subject after two Boeing 737 Max planes crashed in 2018 and 2019.

However, if Republic somehow succeeded some passengers would surely have deeply expressed concerns. Then again, many had deeply expressed concerns about the Max before it returned to the air.

These days, I suspect many don't even think about it when they're on a Max. They're too busy thinking about whether they'll arrive at their destination on time.

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