The Federal Aviation Administration has rejected a regional airline's bid to reduce the number of flight hours needed to become a commercial airline pilot.

Indianapolis-based Republic Airways had requested the reduction in flight hours for graduates of its flight school as a way to help address a pilot shortage.

Republic petitioned the FAA back in April for an exemption to federal regulation requiring at least 1,500 flight hours for pilots to become certified as first officers at commercial airlines. Republic wanted graduates of its pilot training program, called the Leadership in Flight Training (LIFT) Academy, to qualify with as little as half of that number, 750 flight hours, the same as what's required of pilots coming out of military training.

Republic argued its new pilot training program is similar in format and structure to that of the U.S. military's and is just as good.

But the FAA disagrees, saying in its decision authored by Caitlin Locke, the FAA's acting deputy executive director of Flight Standards Service, that the "data does not sufficiently support Republic's claim that (its) program is sufficiently comparable to the training program of a military branch to warrant a reduction in flight hours."

Before the 1,500 hour rule went into effect in 2012 airlines predicted it would lead to a pilot shortage

The 1,500 hour rule went into effect in 2013 as one of several new safety regulations enacted in response to the Colgan Air plane crash that killed 50 people in Buffalo in February of 2009, even though both pilots of that regional jet had hundreds more hours of flying experience above that 1500 hour threshold.

And even before it went into effect, airlines predicted it would lead a pilot shortage. Most other countries, including those in the EU, require a minimum of just 250 flight hours for pilot certification, as the U.S. did before the Colgan crash.

At the time, critics of increasing the number of flight hours said the 1,500 hour level was arbitrary and not based on scientific data. Now the regional airlines, including Republic, blame the 1500-hour rule at least in part for what they say is a severe pilot shortage that has forced them and their mainline airline partners to cut service because they cannot staff all their flights.

The pilot shortage was already looming in the commercial aviation industry before the pandemic, but was inadvertently made worse by the airlines themselves early in the pandemic. As air travel demand plummeted more than 90%, airlines gave pilots and other employees generous early retirement packages, as well as other incentives, to leave, helping them shed payroll costs.

When air travel demand returned more quickly then expected, mainline carriers such as American, Delta and United, filled their openings by hiring pilots away from their regional airline partners, including Republic, leaving the regional airlines even more short-staffed.

Recruiting, hiring and training new pilots has been stymied by the high cost and length of time it takes prospective pilots to become eligible for commercial airline certification. Flight school and amassing the 1,500 hours of flight time necessary can take years and cost well over $100,000, and Republic argued that the high cost of obtaining the 1,500 flight hours discourages would-be-pilots who cannot afford it.

The largest pilots' union applauds the FAA's denial of Republic's request

Republic's CEO Bryan Bedford said the proposal to reduce flight training hours "would enhance safety by providing students a highly structured, mission-specific training approach" and "open the door to a rich career in aviation to any students who cannot otherwise afford to participate."

But airline pilots' unions opposed the request, arguing that reducing pilot training hours would result in inexperienced pilots and jeopardize safety.

The FAA agrees, saying Republic's new training program "would not be in the public interest or provide an equivalent level of safety" as requiring 1500 hours of flight training now does.

The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots' union, applauds the FAA's denial of Republic's request.

"This decision is a huge win for aviation safety and for the flying public," said ALPA president Capt. Joe DePete. "The FAA's findings confirm what we've said all along about Republic's request––that it is not in the public interest and would adversely affect safety."

Republic CEO Beford says in a statement that the airline is "disappointed - but not surprised" that federal regulators rejected the airline's petition, saying the FAA not give it "the review and engagement it deserves."

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