Industry agrees on airline safety regs

 - June 29, 2009, 11:43 AM

Following congressional hearings last month on the February crash of a twin-engine turboprop near Buffalo, N.Y., senior officials from U.S. airlines, pilot unions and the FAA agreed in a closed-door meeting June 15 to several major actions to improve safety programs and pilot training at the nation’s airlines.

Just days after taking office, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt issued a “Call to Action” to identify immediate steps to strengthen and improve pilot hiring, training and testing at regional airlines as well as at the country’s major air carriers.

The participants agreed on best practices for pilot record checks that would result in a more comprehensive search for all records available throughout a pilot’s career. The expanded search would include all the records the FAA maintains on pilots, as well as the records airlines already receive from past employers.

Not since the mid-1990s has the spotlight been turned so brightly on the training and qualifications of pilots–most notably regional airline pilots. At hearings before the House and Senate aviation subcommittees last month, it was brought out that the Pilot Records Improvement Act of 1996 limits background checks of pilots to just the previous five years. Currently, the Privacy Act requires that searches beyond five years have the permission of the pilot.

The airlines and unions will also review existing pilot training programs over the next several months, according to FAA-issued guidance, to see how they can be strengthened. “We want to make sure we’re not just checking boxes,” Babbitt said. “There’s a real difference between the quantity of training and the quality of training.”

Airline and union officials recommended developing pilot mentoring programs that will expose less experienced pilots to the safety culture and professional standards practiced by more senior pilots. The programs could pair experienced pilots from the major airlines with pilots from their regional partners.

To address concerns about pilot fatigue, Babbitt said the FAA will start rulemaking to rewrite the rules for pilot flight- and duty-time to incorporate recent scientific research about the factors that lead to fatigue.

In mid-May, the National Transportation Safety Board held three days of hearings in Washington on the February 12 crash of the Colgan Air Q400 operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407. The flight from Newark was on approach
to Buffalo when it crashed in a residential neighborhood, killing all 49 on board and one person on the ground.

The NTSB investigation is focusing on flight crew experience and training; remedial training programs; commuting policies and practices; fatigue management; and violations of sterile cockpit and their impact on situational awareness.

In the mid-1990s, the FAA revised its regulation of air carrier safety standards to reflect “one level of safety,” requiring regional air carriers to operate under the same rules and at the same level of safety as their major-airline counterparts. At the time, many regionals were operating under Part 135.

Now all air carriers that operate aircraft with 10 or more seats are required to meet the same level of safety oversight across the board (Part 121). But Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel III told the congressional panels that the NTSB hearings brought to light the need to closely examine the regulations governing pilot training and rest requirements and the oversight necessary to ensure their compliance.

“This is a particular concern at [the] regional carriers since the last six fatal Part 121 accidents involved regional air carriers, and the NTSB has cited pilot performance as a potential contributory factor in four of those accidents,” Scovel testified. In addition to these accidents, there were two nonfatal accidents in 2007 involving regional airlines, in which the NTSB concluded that pilot fatigue was a contributing factor.

At the House aviation subcommittee hearing, Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio), a major in
the Air Force Reserve who flew C-130s during four rotations in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, said Capt. Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw had inadequate training on the Dash 8-Q400. “These pilots did not have training on how to recover from a full stall,” he said, adding that they should not have flown into icing conditions.

Subcommittee chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) announced he will be crafting legislation to address issues surrounding pilot training and safety.