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After the Southwest jet’s emergency landing, will Congress change airline safety rules?

- April 19, 2018
National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. (NTSB/AP)

With one person dead after a Southwest Airlines jet made an emergency landing this week, lawmakers are pressing the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for hearings on aviation safety. The accident Tuesday at Philadelphia International Airport occurred as Congress takes up legislation to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency that regulates civil aviation. The FAA has been operating under short-term budget extensions for years. The proposed Reauthorization Act would guarantee a cash stream for the agency’s programs and initiatives through 2023.

What’s behind the push for safety hearings?

The Southwest Airlines jet suffered a malfunction while traveling from New York to Dallas on Tuesday. About 20 minutes into the flight, one of the airplane’s engines exploded, sending metal fragments into the wing and passenger cabin. When a window blew out, cabin pressure dropped and oxygen masks fell.

The airplane made an emergency landing in Philadelphia. While most of the 149 passengers and crew emerged from the incident unharmed, seven were injured and one died. The passenger killed has been identified as Jennifer Riordan, 43, from New Mexico.

Why is this fatality politically significant?

Riordan’s death is the first passenger fatality on a U.S. airline in nearly a decade. The last occurred in 2009, when Colgan Air 3407 crashed while attempting to land in Buffalo. Fifty people died in that crash, including 49 passengers and crew and one person on the ground.

In the aftermath of the Colgan crash, victims’ families — backed by the powerful Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) — lobbied Congress for stricter qualification standards for aviators. Lawmakers acquiesced, mandating pilots have at least 1,500 hours of flying experience — the equivalent to holding a more advanced license — before ferrying passengers around, up from 250 hours previously. ALPA and its allies credit the 1,500-hour rule with keeping America’s skies fatality-free since the rule’s inception.

Who opposes the 1,500-hour rule?

Regional airlines have long opposed the 1,500-hour rule, arguing the higher qualification standard makes it difficult to hire enough pilots. In 2014, Republic Airways chief Bryan Bedford told House lawmakers leaving the rule in place would “hasten the growing pilot shortage and imperil air service at communities across the country,” all while doing little to improve air safety.

Two years later, the airline — which operates regional flights for American, Delta and United  — sought protection from creditors after struggling with labor issues, including pilot shortages. Other carriers have reported cutting service for the same reason. As air travel demand rises, SkyWest chief executive Chip Childs warned last year, many airplanes may soon be grounded because not enough pilots have met the standard.

Does the rule improve safety?

There is not much evidence showing a link between the 1,500-hour rule and improved air safety. One government study found a minority of those accidents analyzed involved pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours on the job. A series of university-led studies found the best-performing pilots were not always those who had flown the most hours.

The 1,500-hour rule’s effectiveness has also been questioned by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that is charged with investigating civil transportation accidents. Before the rule went into effect, the NTSB said, “total flight hours . . . does not necessarily equate to the level of knowledge, skills and professionalism required for consistently safe flight operations.” The FAA has expressed similar conclusions, having noted “no quantifiable relationship” between the 1,500-hour requirement and the frequency of airplane accidents. In 2010 then-FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt instead emphasized the importance of “quality training and experience appropriate to the mission to be ready to handle any situation [pilots] encounter.”

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What happens next?

Republican lawmakers were already scrutinizing the 1,500-hour rule. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) in particular had been exploring ways to amend the requirement to help make pilot recruitment and training easier.

His efforts have faced stiff resistance from Democrats and ALPA, who link the nation’s air-safety record to the rule. With the fatality-free streak now broken, Republicans may have the political capital to overhaul regulation long seen by some as being ineffective and burdensome.

To be sure, the Southwest incident could have been far more severe, and more lives could have been lost. However, the mere fact that someone was killed undercuts an argument that proponents of the 1,500-hour rule have long used to justify its existence.

Ashley Nunes is a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics.