FAA working toward a new level of safety, says Babbitt

 - September 29, 2009, 7:01 AM

In the wake of the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in February, how are safety programs and pilot hiring, training and testing practices being improved?
The fallout has caused us–obviously we did the call to action–to put a bright light on fatigue and risk management issues. We have a rulemaking committee that has now finished in record time. They came pretty close to consensus. We have a terrific foundation to have a new management approach that is scientifically based. I think it is a thoughtful approach to an old problem that now has a modern-day solution for it. On a personal basis, I have really tried to refocus all of the professionals in this business, whether they be dispatchers, flight attendants, pilots, mechanics or controllers.

We all need to take a renewed look at professionalism, and a lot of the gaps I’ve seen we’re not going to fix with regulations. We’re only going to fix them with a rededication to professionalism. Once again we find ourselves addressing the sins of 0.003 percent, while [all the rest] of the people do things above and beyond.

The final thing we’ve learned, that we are in the process with, is [adoption of] best practices. We’re seeing an industry, when we look at the commercial side of aviation, where just an enormously high percentage does things well above and beyond all of the standards.

But we have created an atmosphere where people nowadays compete to be in regional service. That competition is economic; there’s no other word for it, and
it is a cost-based system. So we have people who in an effort to win their bids perform at the standards. But that in itself becomes a dual standard. And
I guess it’s going to raise the question: do we need to raise
the minimum standards?

There’s a cry in the industry that maybe everybody needs an ATP. My belief is that we need to have a curriculum that ensures that everybody in the cockpit of a multicrew airplane has had adequate training and exposure to all of the things they’re going to see. We see too many cases where people are confusing–in my mind–quantity of flight time with quality of flight time.

You have expressed concern about the professionalism of pilots. How can the FAA turn that concern into concrete improvements?

I think we’re getting to a point–with AQP [advanced qualification program] and some of these programs–that what’s really helpful is scenario testing. At some point, that is where you are going to gain better benefits: making people think through [situations]. Living in line-oriented flight training, which AQP gives you. I think those are good programs. If we are going to expand anywhere, I think that’s an area where we can do some good. We need to make sure we’ve got training that is going to cover things that you are actually going to do in the line of duty.

The NTSB, members of Congress and the aviation industry have complained about the length of time it takes to complete an NPRM. Do you have any thoughts on how to speed up the process?

Congress complains about the length of time of some of these things, but a lot times what we are bound by is the congressional rules of inclusion–who has to be involved–and then these things have to go and get vetted before they become regulatory. On the one hand, everybody wants you to move faster, but those people who want you to move faster are some of the same people who are putting burdens on you that slow you down. I don’t say that in a critical sense, but I think we all need to have reasonable expectations.

Oftentimes we go back and forth with the NTSB. The NTSB has the advantage–I’ll call it adverse selection–that it investigates something that’s already happened, and it can put a lot of people and a lot of focus on everything surrounding that and it quite often finds deficiencies. We don’t have the manpower and never will. We conduct 70,000 operations a day, so our oversight is dependent on the proper sample selections. We can’t test everything and we can’t be everywhere. So we have to take the resources we have and do the best job we can.

I think we do a pretty darn good job. We do better than any other mode. We implement more. We have fewer backlogs. When someone says, ‘Gee whiz, you didn’t implement 400,’ when you analyze where those 400 are–some of them are in the NPRM stages, others are in review back to the NTSB…precious few are simply not being implemented and it’s pretty clear on that.

What is the FAA’s role in defending the right of airports to continue as airports?

If you are in AIP [Airport Improvement Program] land, and this is an airport that has taken federal funds, this would be like me saying I want to close your house. It’s not mine to close.

We take over some responsibility. We have ascertained that this airport is making a contribution to the National Airspace System. That’s a big criterion for us when we put money up at the request of an airport. That’s a delicate question, more of a political question. You have communities around that might want to restrict certain types of operations based on noise and based on constituents in the area. But again, if that airport is providing commercial linkage for that city, and we made investments in it, then that’s an area where it’s a joint responsibility. They don’t have the unilateral right to do those things.

While business aviation has a safety record almost equal to the major airlines, what advice would you give to pilots and corporate aviation flight departments?

Well, they’ve done a great job and I applaud [NBAA] and its members for their constant attention to safety. But as I’ve said in a number of forums, my advice is the status quo is never good enough for safety. There’s always one incremental improvement that we can make and there will always be the next incremental improvement. Technology can give it to us, knowledge will give it to us, experience will give it to us. We can constantly keep improving. So, while they’ve done a wonderful job and I think the FAA has done a credible job, it’s never going to be good enough; we’ve always got to keep improving it.

In the short term, one of the things we’ve seen, and maybe it’s because of technology, we’ve become reliant on other things, like protective and warning systems and so forth. But it’s never forgetting about the basics, and never forgetting about professionalism that are keys that are always going to be there going forward.