The comments come on the heels of National Transportation Safety Board testimony last month which revealed that a series of critical errors by the captain and co-pilot preceded the crash of the twin engine turboprop on February 12, killing 50 people.
Critics are focusing their attention on pilot training and working conditions.
In a review of NTSB accident records, USA Today yesterday revealed that in most serious accidents over the past decade, pilots who had a history of failing skills and performance tests were at the controls.
Most of these accidents involved smaller regional airlines, which account for roughly half of all domestic flights.
"Well, the general pilot qualification level is certainly a concern for us in the industry right now," First Officer Jeff Skiles told Early Show anchor Maggie Rodriguez. "We've never really had to be hiring entry level pilots at the FAA minimums before.
"In the past it's been a very attractive career for people to join, and the airlines, even the regional airlines, have been able to select from a very qualified applicant pool. That's not happening any more, and we're having to hire down to the FAA minimums, which most pilots have always considered to be very substandard."
Skiles also confirmed the complaints of other pilots about working conditions. Many are forced to work grueling schedules with little sleep between shifts and low pay. Testimony at last month's NTSB hearing into the Buffalo crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 revealed that pilots can work as long as 16 hours straight, with as little as 4 or 5 hours of sleep, before getting back into the cockpit.
"That is true," Skiles said. "The current fatigue rest rules are less restrictive than truck drivers work under. Once you've been on duty for 13 hours, you are about 500 percent more likely to make an error, and once you've been on duty for 16 hours, you have the response rate of somebody who is legally drunk.
"This is a concern for all of us," he said, "and what we're trying to do is have Congress actually propose legislation to lower the flight duty regulations that we work under."
Skiles said that most pilots in the regional carrier industry are "very experienced and very qualified," but that having a skilled operator in the pilot's seat is on a case-by-case basis.
"There are cracks in the system," he told Rodriguez.
Testimony at the NTSB hearing on the crash indicated the flight's captain may not have had hands-on training on a critical cockpit safety system. The cockpit voice recorder showed the co-pilot describing her lack of experience flying in icy weather not long before the crash.
At a House hearing in February, Skiles noted that when he began at US Air, the company required several thousand hours of flying time just to gain an interview for a pilot job. "New pilots in the jet aircraft of our affiliate airlines have 300 hours," he said. "It is certainly in the interest of the traveling public to have experienced crews in the cockpit."
Skiles says that the FAA needs to raise the minimum requirements to what he calls "real world levels."
Skiles also testified that, because of the economic turmoil facing the airline industry over the last several years has hit pilots hard. his salary has been reduced in half, and he's lost his pension.
"Many pilots like Captain Sullenberger and myself have had to split their focus from the airline piloting profession and develop alternative businesses or careers," Skiles said. "I myself am a general contractor. For the last 6 years, I have worked 7 days a week between my two jobs just to maintain a middle class standard of living."
The result, Skiles testified, is that experienced pilots are leaving the industry for other, more lucrative career fields, and are being replaced with inexperienced pilots.
In response to the outcry about pilot qualifications, U.S. officials have said they plan to increase inspection of pilot training programs at regional airlines.
In a statement Tuesday Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt said they will also hold a summit meeting with the airline industry next week to seek better pilot training and other safety improvements.
Babbitt said it was clear from the crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, New York, in February that safety needs to be improved.
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