Aviation Connects South Dakotans to the World
By Senator Mike Rounds
National Aviation Day is observed annually on August 19th to celebrate the history and promote the development of aviation. It coincides with the birthday of Orville Wright who, along with his brother Wilbur, pioneered powered flight more than 100 years ago. I took an early interest in aviation, receiving my pilot’s license at the age of 17. Today, aviation allows us to travel more frequently and with relative ease to all corners of the world.
As a large, rural state with a sparse population, many of us rely on regional airline service for flight travel. In fact, 90 percent of South Dakota’s commercial service comes from the regional airline industry. It is an essential service for our rural communities. Unfortunately, regional airline service in places like Huron, Watertown, Aberdeen and Pierre have struggled in recent years. Delays, canceled flights and fewer flight options have made it more difficult for residents to fly in and out of these communities.
Understanding how important regional airline service is to our state, I have been working to solve the problem of decreased air service to our smaller towns. One important issue is the pilot shortage currently affecting our regional airlines. In 2010, Congress passed new mandatory minimum flight hour requirements for airline pilots. The new regulation raised the number of flight hours required to serve as a copilot from 250 to 1500, a 600 percent increase. This increase has created a significant barrier to entry to the airline industry for aspiring pilots, and in turn has made it very hard for carriers like Great Lakes Airlines, a regional carrier serving South Dakota, to fill open pilot positions.
While increasing flight hour minimums was well-intended, these new laws were not aligned with the expert recommendations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB). Now, six years later, thanks to critical research at places like South Dakota State University, we are in a position to offer a better and safer alternative based on empirical data. These entities have conducted peer-reviewed studies that consistently show the best pilots are the ones who receive the best training, not the ones with simply the most flight hours.
Earlier this year, I introduced an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill to address these issues. My amendment seeks to increase the qualified pilot pool for regional airlines by creating new, state-of-the art, FAA-certified safety courses that would count toward minimum pilot flight hour requirements. It also strengthens pilot training and airline safety by putting pilots through rigorous, simulator-based training programs, all while maintaining the high standards that Congress put in place for the Airline Pilot Transport Certificate. By simulating more real-world crisis scenarios and attending more industry specific training, I believe our pilots would be even better prepared to respond in the event of an emergency.
Today, air travel is the safest it has ever been and more people are flying than ever before. Our travel possibilities are endless, as long as we have pilots to fly us. I will continue working toward a solution that reconnects the broken pilot pipeline while continuing to maintain the highest standards of safety in aviation. And, I will continue working on behalf of those who live in smaller communities to keep our regional airports thriving.
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