Airline co-pilots would have to meet the same experience threshold required of captains _ the first boost in four decades _ under regulations proposed Monday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The proposed regulations would increase the minimum number of flight hours required to fly for a commercial air carrier to 1,500 for all pilots. Captains already have to meet that threshold, but co-pilots currently need only 250 hours to fly for an airline.
The proposal is the first increase in the threshold to become a co-pilot since 1973, when the FAA raised the minimum number of hours from 200 to 250.
Co-pilots would also need a "type rating" specific to the airliner they plan to fly, another requirement that has only applied to captains thus far. That would mean additional training and testing.
The FAA was required to propose the new threshold under an aviation safety law enacted in response to the crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., three years ago. Fifty people were killed.
Both the pilots in that accident had more than the minimum 1,500 hours. But the crash, which was blamed on pilot error, turned a spotlight on hiring and training at regional airlines. Pilot unions and safety advocates told Congress that co-pilots were sometimes hired at low wages with barely more than the 250-hour minimum and allowed to fly passengers after meeting no-frills training requirements.
"Our pilots need to have the right training and the right qualifications so they can be prepared to handle any situation they encounter in the cockpit," said Michael Huerta, FAA's acting administrator.
The proposal contains two carve-outs to the new experience requirements that weren't called for by Congress: Former military pilots will need only 750 hours to fly for an airline, and graduates of university or college flight schools need only 1,000 hours.
Hours accumulated flying small planes up and down beaches towing banners or other basic flying isn't as effective as fewer hours of quality training, FAA officials have said previously.
"The FAA believes a combination of training and flight experience is what makes a candidate qualified to fly" for an airline, the proposal said.
Most airlines require both captains and first officers to have more than the 1,500 hours, but those standards have sometimes dipped during periods when airlines were expanding and the pool of experienced pilots is shallow. Raising the experience threshold for pilots may force some airlines to raise wages, adding to financial pressures at a time when high fuel prices are eating up profits.
University flight schools have fiercely opposed the 1,500 hour requirement, arguing that it could make an airline career unaffordable because students would have to invest tens of thousands of dollars in extra flight time in addition to what they spent on college tuition. Some students might skip college altogether and use the tuition money for extra flight lessons.
But proponents of the new safety law, including pilot unions and air crash victims' families, said at the time the law was passed that in today's airlines where captains and first officers are expected to be able to fly planes equally well there should be no difference in the standard they are required to meet.
Scott Maurer, whose daughter Lorin was killed in the Buffalo crash, said he wasn't troubled by the carve-outs for some pilots since the FAA is still requiring co-pilots meet the same training and skills tests as captains before they can fly for an airline.
"Anything that prevents something like (the Buffalo crash) from happening again is a good thing," he said in a telephone interview Monday. "There is some comfort in knowing that another family might not have to feel the same things we do."
The public has 60 days to comment on the proposal.
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