There has been a good deal of controversy surrounding the experience levels of regional pilots. What concerns should passengers have?

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When I was hired into my first regional cockpit job in 1990, I had accrued 1,500 total flight hours and possessed a freshly minted ATP certificate. How things change. Over the next two decades, as the regional sector grew and grew, thousands of new pilot jobs were created. To fill these slots, airlines sharply down their expertise and flight time minimums for brand spanking new hires. Suddenly, pilots were being taken on with as very little as 350 hours of total time, assigned to the first officer’s seat of sophisticated regional jets.

The short answer is no. Logbook totals aren’t necessarily a good prognosticator of skill or performance under pressure. A given pilot’s smarts are not so easily quantified, and as the accident annals will attest, low-time crews hardly own a monopoly on mistakes. All pilots undergo rigorous airline training programs before they’re allowed to carry passengers, and the largest regionals have state-of-the-art training facilities on par with any major and have tailored their curricula with low-time new-hires in mind.

The long answer is more complicated. I remember myself as a young, five-hundred-hour pilot and imagine being assigned to a regional jet. Would I be qualified to the letter of the law? Sure. But am I the best and safest candidate for the job? No. The reality is, there are valuable intangibles that a pilot that green simply does not possess. Therefore, I suppose it is fair to say that regional airlines have become, on some level, less safe. Mind you, we’re wrangling with statistical minutiae: less safe is not the same as unsafe, and this is by no means an admonition against flying aboard RJs. Nevertheless it warrants our attention.

Regulators agree, and the rules are getting tougher. The Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, brings important changes to training and hiring protocols. The law requires that pilots possess an ATP to be eligible for any airline cockpit job. Requirements for an ATP include a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time (broken down over various categories) and satisfactory completion of written and in-flight examinations. Additionally the law will redefine the nucleotide certificate itself, action the operational environments of economic commercial airlines and requiring specialised coaching in things like cockpit resource management (CRM), crew coordination, and so on.

These changes will make it easier to weed out pilots who lack the acumen for airline operations. For those who progress, it will allow an easier transition from general aviation into the high-demand training environment at a regional. It will lower their coaching prices and, ultimately, play safer cockpits. And theoretically at least, it should encourage the regionals to begin offering better wages and benefits, since, for a would-be pilot, obtaining an ATP will entail a financial investment on the order of six figures.

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, most regional airlines, even those that are wholly owned, are entirely separate entities from whichever major they’re sharing a paint job and flight number with. They are contractors, with their own employee groups, training departments, and so on. For crews, there is no automatic advancement from a regional to its big-league partner. A young pilot (or flight attendant) might get a thrill from flying an aircraft that says United or Delta on the side, but it’s the small print—Connection, Express—that counts. A pilot for United Express is no more a pilot for United Airlines than the cashier at the concourse newsstand. If he wants to fly a 777 for United, he submits his résumé and hopes for the best, just like anybody else. There are partial exceptions to this, such as at American Eagle and Compass Airlines, whereby limited numbers of pilots are granted conditional flow-through rights to American and Delta, respectively.

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