- Associated Press - Monday, August 11, 2014

Kearney Hub. Aug. 9, 2014.

Pilot crisis needs help from Congress

Cities that operate smaller regional airports ought to be grateful for Rep. Adrian Smith’s attention to the pilot shortage crisis. However, the legislation Smith introduced in July only places a Band Aid on the challenges facing smaller airports, such as Kearney’s, and fails to address longer term issues, including reliability, safety and sustainability.

Those three issues are critical because, in the long run, regional airports must develop the traffic volume necessary for commuter airlines to operate without subsidies. Federal $100-$200 per ticket subsidies are a big help today, but Congress frequently has targeted the Essential Air Service program, and eventually the costly subsidies that help remote, rural airports will be eliminated.

When that happens, if airports such as Kearney’s haven’t developed adequate passenger volume, they can kiss commuter air service goodbye.

Although Smith’s Small Airport Regulation Relief Act of 2014 is far from being a comprehensive answer to the pilot shortage dilemma, it would at least help some smaller airports qualify for $1 million annually in Federal Aviation Administration incentives to increase passenger volume.

In the past, when boardings reached 10,000 per year, airports received $1 million from the FAA. Kearney’s airport has used its $1 million incentives for a variety of improvements - firefighting equipment, runway lighting, and others - that enhanced safety and expanded the airport’s ability to serve larger aircraft.

If Smith is successful, his bill would continue the stream of $1 million annually to Kearney and other airports that in 2012 achieved 10,000 boardings. However, the pilot shortage likely will continue, and that means smaller rural airports face a nearly impossible challenge to maintain reliable commuter air service.

Kearney has reported a 25-percent decline in boardings this year because the pilot shortage has caused so many flight cancellations.

What’s needed more than a guaranteed $1 million per year from the FAA is for Congress to lower pilot experience expectations, or implement incentives to help would-be pilots acquire the air time and training for their licenses.

Before new federal regulations took effect, co-pilots had to have 250 hours in the air. Now they must have 1,500 - a daunting figure for young people contemplating careers in which their starting pay is about $20,000 per year. No wonder there aren’t enough trainees in the pipeline to stem today’s pilot shortage and fill vacancies when an estimated 18,000 pilots retire.

Nebraskans appreciate Smith’s help, but the situation needs a lot more attention from all of Smith’s colleagues in Congress.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Aug. 9, 2014.

A hard call to make

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