On the edge again

Dec 9, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

New regulations on flight experience for crews undermine local air service

Fremont County travelers have been given a lump of coal for Christmas with the news that the requirements for airline pilots are more stringent than they used to be. It's going to make things worse at our only commercial airport within 100 miles.

In the better old days, a flight crew member below the level of captain could work for Great Lakes Airlines with 250 hours of cockpit time. Recent changes at the federal level now, apparently, require cockpit officers for Great Lakes to have 1,500 hours in training flights.

The earlier requirements were the big reason that Great Lakes passengers saw such youthful pilots flying the planes. The old joke went something like this: "Did you hear why the Great Lakes pilot showed up late? His mom couldn't get her car started."

Now, however, it appears the government is pricing young pilots out of the small-carrier market, so to speak, which means that it will be much more difficult for Great Lakes to hire enough cockpit crews to fill its needs. The pilot with 1,500 hours of experience probably isn't going to be looking to Great Lakes Airlines for a job, because that carrier pays less than the bigger carriers do.

Younger, less-experienced crew members could be hired by Great Lakes, but it was commonplace for them to leave once they got more experience and could qualify for better jobs with bigger carriers.

Passengers at airports served by regional carriers, such as Riverton Regional Airport, made it a hobby to criticize the airline under the previous regulations. Now they will have even more ammunition. If the rules are implemented and enforced as described, flight cancellations probably are going to be more likely because there are fewer crew members available thanks to the new federal regulations.

A small, regional carrier such as Great Lakes operates with the tightest possible margins of finance, equipment and personnel. If one aircraft is out of commission, the entire schedule can be fouled up.

The same goes for flight crews. With the option of hiring younger, less-experienced co-pilots narrowed, those who remain are all but indispensable. It means that if one pilot hasn't had the requisite hours of rest, or gets the flu, or gets stuck in traffic, cancellations are inevitable up and down the line because there aren't enough people to fill in.

Of course, any airline passenger feels greater comfort knowing that the person flying the plane is experienced, but the justification for suddenly declaring that someone who has made the equivalent of 250 Riverton-to-Denver flights is no longer qualified to make those flights is unclear in the abstract, and clearly damaging in practice.

It is a never-ending struggle for smaller cities and airports to maintain commercial air service. There always seems to be some obstacle that threatens this vital component of the local economy and the quality of life afforded by having access to commercial air travel.

Consequently, there is a never-ending hew and cry from communities served by smaller carriers to their federal representatives in Congress.

Consider this a renewal of that plea.

Sens. Enzi and Barrasso, Rep. Lummis, please look into this for us. Airline service already teetered on the precipice for Wyoming's small airports before this burdensome new regulation was handed down. With it, the situation is more precarious than ever.

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