Airlines brace for fallout of Colgan crash

 - July 28, 2009, 6:08 AM

Something positive might come from the February 12 crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 after all, if a broad FAA effort to revamp rules governing airline pilot records, fatigue and training ultimately bears fruit. Unfortunately for those who lost family members and friends in the crash, it took yet another fatal regional airline accident and a new FAA Administrator to “expedite” the establishment of an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) dedicated to pilot fatigue by July 15 and “conduct a focused program review” of Part 121 training, qualification and management. But to the satisfaction of those who have called for reform for years, all the negative attention this latest accident generated appears to have set the conditions for some concrete change.

In a letter dated June 24, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt also urged all air carriers to adopt policies aimed at ensuring pilot applicants release all of his or her records while the agency works with Congress to update the Pilot Records Improvement Act of 1996. Further, according to the letter, the FAA expects all carriers that haven’t yet put in place Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) and Aviation Safety Action Programs (ASAP) to do so.

On that score, most every airline member of the Regional Airline Association has already implemented ASAP–the FAA program that encourages employees to report safety concerns voluntarily by guaranteeing limited immunity from disciplinary action. But until recently regionals in general have not wholeheartedly embraced FOQA–the voluntary program under which most major airlines use quick access recorders and ground analysis software to monitor and analyze various flight and systems data to help craft a training curriculum, for example, or, more controversially, to apply corrective action. Again, FAA rules prohibit the use of the data for any enforcement action, but they don’t protect against its use to determine criminal or deliberate acts.

Pilot groups without specific cover in their union contract language have worried about the possible misuse of FOQA data to confuse a deliberate act with an error in judgment, for example, while management in some cases has worried about the use of the information in civil lawsuits to establish liability. Meanwhile, the nation’s smallest regional carriers say they simply cannot absorb the program’s cost.

The failure of most regional airlines to institute FOQA received a full public airing as early as January 2007, during NTSB hearings into the 2004 crash of a Pinnacle Airlines CRJ200 in Jefferson City, Mo. Although the NTSB cited the pilots’ lack of professionalism, discipline and knowledge in their decision to take the airplane to 41,000 feet, causing an engine flame-out from which they could not recover, it also pointed to Pinnacle’s failure to adopt FOQA, for one, as evidence of a lax safety culture. However, at the time, a Pinnacle spokesman told AIN that it asked for permission from ALPA to institute FOQA in 2003, but that the union didn’t respond until after the hearings. For its part, ALPA insisted it “repeatedly requested that Pinnacle Airlines put both these programs [ASAP and FOQA] in place” for “more than a year.”

In any case, not until after the Jefferson City crash did Pinnacle join ExpressJet in implementing a FOQA program, and two years later, by the time of the Colgan disaster, no other regionals had adopted the program.

But while the Pinnacle case involved a repositioning flight, 50 people died in the Colgan crash, leaving no escape from the harsh glare of a public spotlight rendered all the more intense by the fact that regionals now account for more than half of all U.S. revenue flights. As of last month Colgan had instituted FOQA and three more regional airlines had at least begun the process. “FOQA is a great program that our members see numerous benefits from–most notably, improved safety data,” RAA president Roger Cohen said last month. “All of our members recognize this, and most are in various stages of implementing FOQA and parallel programs... These are great programs and we’re working with our employees and the government to put them into action as fast as possible.”

Separately, Babbitt has placed a “high priority, with an aggressive timeline,” on the creation of a new flight- and duty-time rule based on fatigue science.
Notwithstanding the RAA’s position that 1997’s “Single Level of Safety” initiative requiring Part 135 “commuters” to meet Part 121 standards resulted in regulatory parity between regionals and majors, the argument that regionals’ high-frequency operating environment results in more grueling schedules might have finally met with a receptive ear at the FAA.

The recent accident record hasn’t helped the regionals’ cause; since August 2003, regional airlines have accounted for five of the last six fatal accidents involving FAR Part 121 passenger-carrying operations in the U.S., according to the accident database maintained by the NTSB. The only fatal Part 121 accident during that time that didn’t involve a regional airline– the Dec. 8, 2005, runway overrun by a Southwest Airlines 737 at Chicago Midway Airport–resulted in the death of a single automobile passenger when the airplane rolled through the perimeter fence and onto a nearby road. Two other fatal accidents during that span involving regional airlines resulted in the death of four pilots performing Part 91 repositioning flights.

The FAA has given the new fatigue ARC until September 1 to draft recommendations to the agency that would inform a new, “science-based” NPRM on flight time limits and rest requirements. Meanwhile, the RAA says it plans to commission an independent fatigue study to help craft a better informed position on the matter. The association also has pledged to create a so-called fatigue awareness program for its member airlines and it now advocates random fatigue testing of crewmembers.
“We’re going to be full participants in this and we have already appointed our members to the ARC for the flight and duty time rule [specifically, representatives from American Eagle and Republic Airways],” said Cohen.

“I suspect that there will be [a change to the rules],” he said. “I think it should be based on sound science, and obviously fatigue is one of those issues that our own strategic safety initiative identified as something that needs to be addressed.”

However, the RAA hasn’t yet determined how its fatigue study will “dovetail” with the FAA’s studies, he said. “Our study will really focus in on our narrower issues, particularly related to regional operations,” he added. “I think the first thing we need to do is look at all the existing science, and that’s something we’re just in the beginning stages of doing.”

Cohen noted that the debate over flight and duty times dates back 20 years and the NPRM that calls for a sweeping overhaul of training for flight crew and dispatchers–the so-called re-write of Part 121 Subparts N and O– appeared in the Federal Register a month before the Colgan crash, on January 12. Nevertheless,
the recent push to speed implementation of new regulations “is understandable given the situation,” he conceded.

Babbitt has said he wants a resolution to the N and O rewrite, comments on which come due August 10, by the end of the year. The FAA expects the final rule will require line-oriented flight training in a full flight simulator; the use of a qualified flight simulation training device for training, testing and checking flight crew-members; “special hazard training” for loss of control and CFIT; and further training in crew resource management principles. The agency also wants the new rule to establish re-qualification training for aircraft dispatchers and crewmembers and require a continuous analysis process for certificate holders.

Separately, an FAA notice issued June 24 calls for a review of pilot training requirements “in light of changing pilot entry level demographics,” emphasizing “scenario-based training” and operations beyond normal flight profiles. Under the plan, principal operations inspectors for each carrier would conduct a special assessment of training and check programs by the end of the fiscal year. The effort will include an appraisal of air carrier procedures for identifying and tracking low-time pilots and those who fail often or who repeatedly need more training.

As a matter of course, the extra scrutiny paid to low-time pilots will disproportionately affect regionals. FAA Notice N 8900.78 defines a low-time crewmember as one who has accumulated fewer than 1,500 total flight hours in jet-powered aircraft or fewer than 1,500 hours in Parts 121, 135 or military operations; fewer than 300 total flight hours in type with his or her current employer; or fewer than 13 months in his or her current position (not type specific).
If necessary, the FAA will require remedial training and more oversight to ensure that the certificate holder effectively addresses performance deficiencies.

At the same time, the FAA hopes to make records of such deficiencies–such as failed check rides–more readily accessible to prospective employers by working with Congress to amend the Pilot Records Improvement Act of 1996 (PRIA). While it carries out those efforts, it plans to revise Advisory Circular 120-68D to urge carriers to ask for voluntary disclosure.

The calls for more thorough checks intensified after Colgan Air vice president for administration Mary Finnigan testified during NTSB hearings in May that the captain of the ill-fated Bombardier Q400 that crashed on approach to Buffalo did not mention two of his FAA certificate “disapprovals” on his employment application. Finnegan testified that “he would have been immediately dismissed” if the company had known he withheld the information.

“That would have been falsifying documentation and it’s not tolerated,” she added.
The May NTSB hearings revealed that the captain had accumulated four FAA certificate “disapprovals,” three before his hiring at Colgan in 2005, including disapprovals for his pilot instrument, commercial pilot initial and his commercial multi-engine rating. He also failed his first evaluation at Colgan for his ATP certificate.
Finnegan noted that PRIA prohibits an airline from tracking records dating back more than five years without a waiver from the applicant. “Are we looking for ways to find out if a pilot falsifies something on his application? Absolutely,” said Finnigan. “However, we would welcome the help of the Board to do that.”

The RAA has recommended that Congress change the law to extend allowable background checks from five to 10 years.

“But even in advance of Congress acting, the FAA needs to step up and make these records more accessible,” stressed Cohen.

“This is something that the RAA brought to the attention of Congress, that, even though the FAA collects all the information, the information collected is not in a single place,” he said. “To get it requires time; from what we understand it takes 10 to 12 weeks to get it via fax or U.S. mail. Clearly the current method for maintaining and obtaining background on a pilot’s experience and training records is inadequate and needs to be addressed.”