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U.S. airline pilots to need more flight time to qualify

(Reuters) - The United States will increase the flight experience required of pilots on U.S. airlines, a long-awaited move not related to the crash last weekend of an Asiana Airlines plane in San Francisco.

The new rules, which will take effect later this week or next week once they are published in the Federal Register, stem in part from a plane crash near Buffalo in 2009 that killed 50 people, the Federal Aviation Administration said on Wednesday.

First officers, or co-pilots, will now need Airline Transport Pilot certificates to take control of U.S. commercial jetliners or cargo planes. The certificates are earned with 1,500 hours of total flight time. Previously, a co-pilot needed only a commercial certificate, requiring 250 hours.

Captains would still need at least 1,500 hours of flight time but now 1,000 hours would have to be logged as a co-pilot on a commercial carrier. Previously, those hours could be earned in flight school or military training.

Bob Coffman, an American Airlines captain who is also chairman of its pilots union's government affairs committee, said the additional requirement of the ATP certificate would ensure that co-pilots have a variety of flying experiences.

"In this day ... where we are more and more dependent on having two competent pilots at the controls, it does not make much sense for one of the pilots to be significantly less qualified than the other pilot," Coffman said.

The new regulations stem in part from a crash in February 2009 in which a Bombardier DHC-8-400 plunged into a snow-covered neighborhood as it neared Buffalo, New York, killing 49 people on board and one person on the ground. The crash of the Colgan Air flight, operating as Continental Connection flight 3407, raised questions about pilot training.

In that accident, investigators said, the pilot failed to respond appropriately to a "stick-shaker" warning of a potential stall from low air speed - similar conditions to those under investigation in the Saturday crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco, which killed two people and injured more than 180.

The new FAA rules would not apply to the pilots of the Asiana flight, however, since they are not pilots for a U.S. airline.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said there was no link between the pilot qualification rules and Saturday's Asiana plane crash in San Francisco.

"This ruling has been in the works for a couple of years now," Dorr said.

The FAA has drawn criticism from the National Transportation Safety Board for taking years to develop the rules.

"The NTSB notes that human factors concerns associated with low airspeed do not require more than 6 years of study for a solution to be implemented," the NTSB said in a 2010 report on the Colgan accident.

Rep. Rick Larsen, the ranking member on the House aviation subcommittee, said the long period in adopting the rules was a concern. "It's fair to be somewhat critical of the FAA for taking a long time to get these rules up running," he said.

(Reporting by Ros Krasny and Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington, Karen Jacobs in Atlanta, Alwyn Scott in New York; Editing by Maureen Bavdek, Phil Berlowitz, Gary Hill)

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