Recent Op-Eds

Ensuring America’s Airspace Remains the Safest in the World

By Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.)

August 24, 2023

Washington Examiner

With the summer travel season well underway, Americans across the country are experiencing delays, cancellations, and chaotic last-minute changes that make their air travel more difficult. 


Even more concerning, this spring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released an alarming Aviation Safety Call to Action over the unusually high volume of near-miss events when aircraft narrowly avoided an accident. 


The logistical and safety challenges facing our aviation system have been well documented – and they come at a time when Congress is supposed to be reauthorizing the very agency that oversees our nation’s airspace: the FAA. 


When Congress reauthorizes a governmental agency, it should investigate and identify ways to make government work better for Americans. We have a responsibility to make our  government more responsive and easier to interact with for American families.


As members of the Senate’s Commerce Committee, we know there are commonsense, bipartisan ways to reform the FAA and ensure that the flying experience is safer for  Americans who rely on it every day to experience new places, visit loved ones, and get to work.  


Bipartisan congressional efforts to enhance aviation safety are not new. In 2010, following tragic incidents including the Colgan Air crash, Congress came together to enact the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act to address airline flight crew standards, training, and work conditions, including maximum duty periods and rest time requirements. 


The law required the FAA to increase the minimum flight time requirement for pilot certification from 250 hours to 1,500 hours. For context, the E.U. and Canada require just 200 hours for certification. Pilots in Australia and the U.K. only need 150 hours. That means the United States has up to 10 times the requirements compared to some global counterparts. The law also allowed the FAA to authorize certain related academic training to substitute for a portion of the flight time requirement. 


There is no question these increased requirements enhanced aviation safety – they were the right changes to ensure America’s airspace remains the safest in the world. Now, with the development of new technologies, an increase in air travel, and a renewed concern for aviation safety, it’s Congress’s job to continue enhancing safety.


We know that ensuring pilots train with a significant amount of flight time is critical, and we also know prospective pilots need more than just flight time to ensure they are qualified. That’s why the FAA has developed pathways with different flight time requirements for military pilots, graduates with approved aviation Bachelor’s degrees, and graduates of approved aviation Associate’s degrees – because experts agree that education, real-world experience, and flight training hours all work together to make a qualified pilot.


In 2017, the FAA released a report from an Aviation Rulemaking Committee – consisting of pilots, flight attendants, labor groups, airlines, training organizations, industry groups, government representatives, and other aviation stakeholders – in which experts recommended the establishment of an Enhanced Qualification Program (EQP) administered by air carriers to integrate several milestones pilots must meet into one comprehensive curriculum. The goal of the EQP is to bring all of the various training standards, rules, and requirements for pilots together, ensuring all pilots receive the most comprehensive and thorough training available.


With Congress now focused on reauthorizing the FAA, the time to adopt this widely supported program and ensure our country’s prospective pilots remain the most qualified in the world is now. 


That’s why we’ve proposed an amendment with bipartisan support that requires the FAA to establish a thorough, structured curriculum that includes enhanced training standards and requirements for air carriers to administer a comprehensive curriculum for qualified pilots. 


Importantly, our amendment would ensure the FAA retains complete oversight authority over pilot training, and would only change pilot training requirements if those changes are proven to enhance aviation safety. 


We’ve come a long way in technological advancements since 2010. The FAA should have the authority to investigate and evaluate new technologies, including state-of-the-art flight simulators that can mimic extreme flying conditions not always experienced during 1,500 hours of standard flight training times, and determine if these technologies make pilot training more effective and our skies safer. For example, you cannot train pilots to respond to an engine outage or equipment failure – competencies necessary to developing well-rounded pilots – while flying a small aircraft on a clear day.


Our amendment doesn’t reduce the agreed-upon standard of 1,500 hours of flight time, but it does allow the FAA to investigate whether allowing some simulator training would help boost the efficacy and safety outcomes of our nation’s pilot training. 


Unfortunately, extreme rhetoric is derailing thoughtful discussion and progress on Congress’s critical work of reauthorizing the FAA. Honest policy disagreements on the best path forward are OK – it’s natural for us to have differing ideas and views about how to ensure our airspace remains the safest and most responsive in the world. But sadly, some of our colleagues have chosen to engage in name calling, personal attacks, and misrepresentations of our efforts instead of honest debate, discussion, and votes on policies to improve the FAA.


It’s the easiest thing in the world for politicians to line up on opposing sides of an issue and block sensible debate and discussion – the harder thing is to work through our differences and deliver positive change for the American people. 


We know our colleagues on the Commerce Committee share our goal of ensuring America’s airspace remains the safest in the world. We call on our colleagues to put aside the headline-grabbing rhetoric, look at the data that should drive our policy decision making, proceed through regular order by having votes in committee to keep America the international leader in aviation safety for generations to come, and move forward with passing a strong, pro-safety bill to reauthorize the FAA.