Saturday, April 26, 2014

The story behind the air service dilemma

MASON CITY | On Feb. 12, 2009, a Colgan Air 347 commuter plane crashed into a house in Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people aboard as well as one person in the house.

That accident, which occurred more than five years ago and a half a continent away, is a major reason why Mason City Municipal Airport and small airports all over the country are struggling to provide commercial air service today.

Here is how the dots connect.

When the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the Buffalo crash, it determined that the pilot and co-pilot were woefully inexperienced and poorly trained. Colgan Air, now out of business, was a regional carrier operated by Pinnacle Airlines.

In July 2013, as a result of the NTSB findings, the Federal Aviation Administration instituted new rules for pilots of small commercial planes.

Airline captains are now required to have at least 1,000 hours of   second in command or co-pilot experience. While there is a grandfather clause in the rule exempting current pilots, the 1,000-hour requirement is an entirely new measure.

Also, co-pilots are now required to be at least 23 years old, hold an Airline Transport Certificate and have 1,500 hours of flight experience. The previous rules required lesser certification, a minimum age of 18 and 250 hours of flight experience.

The new rules affected smaller airlines because their pilots now need more experience -- and that means more schooling and more expense for relatively low wages.

One result is Great Lakes Airlines, which served Mason City Municipal Airport for about two years, experienced a pilot shortage that forced the airline to suspend operations in Mason City and Fort Dodge and at least four other airports in the Midwest.

Mason City Airport commissioners acknowledge there were problems with the service Great Lakes was providing before, but the lack of service now is, at least in part, due to prospective pilots and active pilots choosing other professions because of the new requirements and the associated costs.

"It's a huge concern, an industry problem and we're not the only ones affected," said Tom Hovland, businessman, airport commissioner and private pilot.

"When you look at the situation you understand both sides of the story. You understand the importance of experience and training and you understand why the National Transportation Safety Board increased the standards.

"I always thought the program that was in place gave young pilots a chance -- and 99.9 percent of those guys are good pilots. But if you're the Safety Board, if you're going to error, you error on the side of safety. I understand that."