Congress is set to reauthorize the FAA. Should it?

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2018 expires at the end of September. This week, Congress will consider H.R. 3935 (118). If passed, it will reauthorize the FAA until 2028, allocating over $100 billion for the next five years.

The bill would raise the retirement age of pilots from 65 to 67 and allow for 150 additional hours of high-gravity simulator time to count toward the mandatory 1500 hours requirement for pilots in training. But why does the current law require pilots to have 1500 flight hours to work for an airline? 

Following the 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3407, the FAA changed its requirements for pilots to earn their Air Transportation license from 250 to 1500 hours. As with the proposed Railway Safety Act, this legislative change had little to do with the accident it was a purported response to. Both pilots had hundreds of hours over the 1500-hour required minimum. 

The new requirement has had deleterious effects for air travel. First, it serves as a barrier to entry. A Forbes article suggested that in 2022, the airline industry required 12,000-15,000 new pilots, while the expected training rate could produce only 6,000 pilots.

This is great news for pilots’ wages as demand for their services far exceeds the supply. However, this inevitably means fewer flights, higher prices, and delays for consumers due to the lack of pilots. Because of this, it is no wonder that pilot unions do not support any change in how the many training hours new pilots need, as it keeps union members’ wages artificially high. 

Perhaps more important is the issue of aircraft safety. Regulators have not been able to prove that the increased hours requirement increases safety. An FAA evaluation of the rule states, “The FAA was unable to find a quantifiable relationship between the 1,500-hour requirement and airplane accidents and hence no benefit from the requirement. For most accidents reviewed by the FAA, both pilots had more than 1,500 hours of flight time and for those SICs [second in command] that did not, there were other causal factors identified by the NTSB.”  

The current rule may even decrease safety, as the system focuses on the quantity, not the quality of hours earned. Because of the unstructured nature of the hours and the fact that many of these hours are spent flying single engine planes in good weather, pilots have less real-life, commercial flight time and may not know from experience how to handle situations like lightning strikes and icings.

Moreover, the EU and UK do not have a 1,500-hour requirement for their pilots, and there has proven to be no difference in safety results in those jurisdictions. In fact, they only require around 200-250 hours’ training. A regulation that, at best, makes no difference and, at worst, decreases safety should be re-examined. 

Other recommendations, such as remote air traffic control towers, have been suggested to make the current system more efficient. Another proposal worth considering is privatization of the FAA as has been done in Canada and the UK with their equivalents.

Those proposals must wait for now, as it seems inevitable that Congress will reauthorize the FAA through 2028, despite its high cost to the taxpayer and its penchant for enacting rules that confer no safety benefits. Its pilot training rules provide good evidence that the FAA benefits special interests, just like all other bureaucracies.