Are Pro Pilots Pros?

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You're a pilot. You stopped counting hours long ago; now you count engines, instead. Your FAA certificate comes with page numbers and looks like a list of every ticket and rating the FAA hands out. Flying is your main source of income. You fly as a professional, act as a professional and get compensated as a professional. But, unless you fly for an air carrier, you may not be a professional in the eyes of the federal government. That interpretation comes from a rule issued in April by the U.S. Department of Labor that attempts to define who is and is not exempt from the department's wage and hour requirements. The rule's impact affects how employers treat pilots when considering minimum wages and overtime, among other considerations. Of course, being a "professional" in the eye of the federal government may not be a good thing if you depend on overtime to make ends meet. The new rule, published April 23, 2004, and scheduled to go into effect Aug. 23, 2004, has created a lot of uncertainty within the corporate flight department, at charter operations and elsewhere. In other words, everywhere "professional" pilots work. Both the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) recently were forced to look at the new rules and determine if their constituencies were affected. That jury is seemingly still out, however. A quick read of the new rule shows that the essential problem has to do with the department's outdated understanding of how pilots are trained and compensated.

For example, the department states that "aviation is not a 'field of science or learning,' and that the knowledge required to be a pilot is not 'customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction,'" an interpretation sure to generate comment at, say, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. That said, the department acknowledges that recent litigation has had the effect of modifying long-held understandings of the training and educational requirements imposed on pilots -- it's a shame they can't pick up the phone and call the FAA to figure out such things. Nevertheless, the department concluded its discussion of how it treats pilots by saying, "Because of the conflict in the courts, and the insufficient record evidence on the standard educational requirements for the various pilot licenses, the Department has decided not to modify its position on pilots at this time." Among other ways in which this situation might be resolved is for the department to look at the combination of education and training requirements, coupled with pay scales. If nothing else, the huge responsibility balanced against the paltry pay -- for most pilots, anyway -- may well tie up in the courts the whole question for decades more. Nevertheless, look for the NBAA and NATA to try to clarify what the heck's going on in the near future. Be assured the federal government will be of no help.