Torqued: Debunking the myth of one level of safety

 - July 28, 2009, 10:25 AM

Most aviation professionals aren’t fooled by the “one level of safety” myth, the sound- bite mantra that the FAA trots out for the public, Congress and the media when a regional airline accident, like the fatal February 12 Colgan crash near Buffalo, N.Y., lays bare the truth about the disparate levels of safety between regional carriers and the majors. Like many of you, I frequently ignore the FAA’s downplaying of safety issues to the public as just another inconvenient truth the government prefers to leave unsaid.

But NBC anchor Brian Williams’s genuine shock and chagrin–when he reported that Colgan’s 20-something copilot was forced to sleep on the crew equivalent of a park bench because of low pay (something less than a stock boy at Target)–and the FAA’s stock one-level-of-safety response got me thinking about the real impact of the agency’s downplaying of safety issues to the public. In this case, its perpetuation of the canard that there’s no difference in safety levels between regional and major air carriers. Does ignoring the differences help safety? Certainly not.

Well, now it finally seems that change may be in the wind. First, at Randy Babbitt’s confirmation hearing as the new FAA Administrator, he candidly recognized the difference in experience levels between pilot applicants at regional versus major air carriers. This is significant. His recent attempts to work with the airlines and pilot unions to raise the safety bar at regional carriers are laudable first steps for a new Administrator.

I’m concerned that while the FAA might place some focus on the differences between pilots at the two types of operations, none seems to be focused on the maintenance issues. I can’t even imagine Brian Williams’s reaction if anyone ever told him what went on in maintenance departments at some of these carriers. Mechanics face the same fatigue issues as pilots, and the low pay forces many of them to work excessive amounts of overtime. In addition, at some carriers, overtime is mandatory.

But first, what is the origin of the one-level-of-safety myth? A spate of regional airline accidents in the 1990s and public outrage over differences in safety rules between regional and national carriers led the FAA to change the rules
regulating regional air carriers. The agency required scheduled regional airlines previously operating under the more lenient Part 135 rules to transition to the higher operating standards of Part 121. Today all scheduled U.S. operators are operating under Part 121 rules.

But having the same minimum rules (and the FARs are just minimums) doesn’t mean the same safety standards are in effect at every air carrier. Airlines are free to set standards higher than the minimums, and most major airlines set standards considerably higher than many regional carriers. This doesn’t make the regionals unsafe, but it does make many of them less safe than the majors.

From training to crew rest to maintenance to dispatch there’s nothing level about the level of safety between most regionals and most majors. Other than the FAA, at least until now perhaps, who else in aviation argues that there’s one level? Not the pilots. (When was the last time you heard a captain at a major airline waxing nostalgic about the good old days of lower pay and longer hours at a regional airline?) Not the mechanics. (In the hangar, they vote with their feet, leaving as soon as a major airline beckons.) Not the airlines, and certainly not the major airlines. I never heard Continental argue that its standards are the same as Colgan’s. Come to think of it, I never heard Colgan argue that it meets the same standards as Continental. And I don’t think I ever will.

For years, the FAA’s insistence on its specious one-level-of-safety mantra undercut air safety. Why improve safety standards at the regionals if you believe there’s nothing to improve? And why mislead the public into believing what everyone in the industry knows is just plain untrue?

Now the Colgan accident reminds us once again that just because the minimum standards for regional and national air carriers are the same does not mean that the public gets the same level of safety flying on regional carriers. The experience level of regional pilots is significantly lower and their training significantly less than that of pilots at the major carriers. Often simulator time is in short supply. This can result, as may have happened with the Colgan crew, with pilots being trained verbally on unusual aircraft events, such as entering a stall. It’s hard to imagine verbal instructions creating quite the same training impact as the virtual reality of blaring horns and physical stick shaking possible in a simulator. Major airlines have been increasing their use of simulators to train their pilots on events that happen only infrequently, recognizing that simulator training on these unusual occurrences can provide huge benefits in the event they do, in fact, occur.

The differences between the regionals and the majors in the maintenance arena
are even starker. As low as the pay is for mechanics working at major airlines, the pay is even lower at the regionals. To try to make a living wage, many regional mechanics work inordinate amounts of overtime, leading to fatigue and the issues associated with fatigue such as inattention, complacency and an increased risk of improper maintenance.

So let’s shatter the myth and make one level of safety a reality. The FAA and the airlines have it within their power to do this. In the meanwhile, why not be honest with the flying public on the differences and let them decide.