new Dubuque Regional Airport terminal

The new Dubuque Regional Airport terminal.

Lucas Busch recently fulfilled all the requirements to graduate from the University of Dubuque’s aviation program.

But despite his accomplishments in the classroom, it could still be more than a year before Busch can fly for a commercial airline, he said.

“It’s disappointing,” Busch said. “I’m not sure I see the reason in it.”

In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration more than quadrupled the amount of flight time pilots must accumulate before earning Airline Pilot Certification.

Pilots previously needed to amass 250 hours to earn their commercial wings. Now, 1,500 hours of cockpit time are needed before certification.

“The rule gives first officers a stronger foundation of aeronautical knowledge and experience before they fly for an air carrier,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a 2013 press release. “With this rule and our efforts to address pilot fatigue — both initiatives championed by the families of Colgan flight 3407 — we’re making a safe system even safer.”

Prospective airline pilots like Busch are exempt from 500 of those hours due to his four-year degree. Former military pilots also can achieve certification after 1,000 hours.

But Busch said he expects to wait up to two years before he can be certified.

“I’m looking to get it done as a flight instructor,” Busch said. “That’s usually the best way.”

Robert Grierson, manager of the Dubuque Regional Airport, said the rule has dissuaded many aviation students from pursuing careers as pilots. The move also has created a pilot shortage, putting a strain on the aviation industry, he said.

“It’s not appealing to go into flight school anymore,” Grierson said. “The airlines are now desperate to get any pilots.”

Grierson said the rule change came after a series of recent crashes and accidents. The tipping point was when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence Center, N.Y.

A report by the National Transportation Safety Board later cited the pilots’ inappropriate response to a stalling turboprop as the cause of the crash. Both pilots had more than 2,000 hours of recorded flight time.

Grierson said many have questioned whether the rule will be effective in preventing crashes.

“I don’t understand where the 1,500 number even comes from,” Grierson said. “To me, it’s an arbitrary number, and it doesn’t address that flight time is not the reason that accident happened.”

Chaminda Prelis, assistant aviation department head at the University of Dubuque, said the time it takes students to complete required flight hours can range from one to two years.

Prelis said the requirement has encouraged students to pursue careers in aviation management, rather than as certified pilots. As a result, the number of pilots has decreased while airline demand has increased.

“It used to be that the students had to do some legwork to get hired by an airline, but now, we have the airlines coming to us,” Prelis said. “They’re desperate to get pilots to fill their planes.”

Grierson said the pilot shortage has forced major airlines to limit where they send flights. That’s particularly problematic for regional airports, which tend to see fewer fliers.

“These pilots are needed for the flights that are being filled with passengers,” Grierson said. “If these smaller airports aren’t filling up their planes, then they have the chance of getting the flight canceled.”

Grierson said the Dubuque Regional Airport has been lucky enough to report consistently filled flights, so it’s unlikely the community will lose flights. However, there’s not much opportunity for expansion, he said.

“The strategy is to pick the most profitable routes when they have a limited crew,” Grierson said. “I have talked with several carriers, and they are all telling me that they are hesitant of any expansion.”

Corporations also have been affected by the rule, according to Prelis. With commercial airlines snatching up all the new pilots, the number of graduating students opting to fly for corporations has decreased dramatically, he said.

“It used to be that the graduating students that either did commercial or corporate was split half and half,” Prelis said. “It’s almost completely commercial now, though.”

Grierson said organizations like the Regional Airline Association are lobbying against the rule. But any change is unlikely, he said.

“The people behind this are very passionate about it,” Grierson said. “They are thinking emotionally, and that’s creating this problem.”