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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2017
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Industry panel weighs rolling back aviation safety rules

WASHINGTON (AP) An influential industry panel plans to vote Thursday on recommendations that the Federal Aviation Administration eliminate or scale back dozens of safety rules, including one on airline pilot qualifications.

The recommendations are contained in a report to the FAA's Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee in response to President Donald Trump's directives to cut government regulations.

Regional airlines have been fighting the pilot qualifications rule since it was adopted by the FAA in response to a sweeping aviation safety law passed by Congress after the last fatal crash of a U.S. passenger airliner.

Lawmakers said at the time that they were concerned about reports in the wake of the crash of Colgan Flight 3407 in February 2009 near Buffalo, New York, that some rapidly growing regional airlines were hiring first officers with far less experience than pilots at major airlines. All 49 people on board and a man on the ground were killed after the captain responded incorrectly to safety systems, causing the plane to stall.

Before that crash, airlines were allowed to hire first officers with as few as 250 hours of flying experience. Airlines would then move first officers into a captain's seat as soon as they had the minimum 1,500 hours of flying experience.

After the crash, the requirements were changed so that a minimum of 1,500 hours were needed for first officers as well as for captains, leading to more experienced first officers.

The report recommends permitting pilots with less than 1,500 hours to qualify for an "air transport" license to fly a passenger-carrying plane if they receive academic training from their airline.

Airlines say the current rule is acerbating a pilot shortage that has caused some regional airlines to cancel flights. The problem, they say, is that it can cost prospective pilots as much as they might pay for a four-year college education to acquire the greater flying hours they now need to qualify for an air transport license. As a result, fewer people are willing to pursue careers as pilots.

Airline pilot unions and safety advocates say the problem is regional airlines don't pay high enough entry-level salaries to attract as many pilots as they need.

The Air Line Pilots Association International said in dissenting comments appended to the report that it opposes the change. It said the pilot supply in the United States remains strong.

A group representing the families of victims of the Colgan crash said in a statement last week that regional airlines have taken their case to the advisory panel "to bypass the legislative process where they have run into considerable resistance."

In June, the Senate Commerce committee passed a bill that included a provision allowing prospective airline pilots to substitute academic training for flying hours. Opposition to the provision from Democrats has prevented Republicans from bringing the bill to the floor for a vote.

The pilots union has said the provision would lead to "pilot puppy mills."

The report also includes recommendations on changes to safety regulations for airliners. These changes would affect myriad rules including those governing the strength of hinges, emergency exit markings and whether ashtrays should be required in restrooms since smoking isn't allowed on planes.

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Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy

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