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New rules make it hard to find small market pilots

Published: Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 11:19 a.m. CDT

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (AP) — The airlines serving small markets in Nebraska and Iowa have had a hard time finding enough pilots since new rules took effect last year, so numerous flights have been canceled.

The canceled flights create hassles for passengers, and could make it harder for small airports to qualify for federal subsidies. Airports must serve at least 10,000 passengers a year to qualify for the subsidies.

Flight cancellations were common last year in North Platte and Scottsbluff, Neb., as well as Mason City, Iowa.

“We’re having a totally unacceptable number of cancellations every day, and monthly,” North Platte Regional Airport Manager Mike Sharkey said. “And our employment’s down to probably a twentieth of what they used to be. Right now we’re experiencing just one flight a day.”

The new rules, which took effect in August, require co-pilots to log 1,500 flight hours before they can work for commercial airlines. The rules also requires co-pilots, which are also called first officers, to have a rating for the type of aircraft they fly, involving additional specific training and testing.

Previously, co-pilots were only required to have 250 hours experience. Airline captains were already required to have at least 1,500 hours flight experience.

By the time pilots accumulate 1,500 flight hours of experience, they are often hired away by major airlines. That makes it harder for regional airlines to hire enough pilots.

The new regulations were required under a 2010 aviation safety law that passed after a regional airliner crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people. The crash was blamed on pilot error.

U.S. Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska said he thinks the Senate Commerce Committee should hold a hearing on these unintended consequences of the new rules. He said the problem could get much worse if small airports lose federal funding.

“This is complicated. It is enormously difficult,” Johanns said. “It’s likely to get more serious if we can’t get this turned around because it involves that 10,000-passenger rule.”

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