AIN Blog: Torqued: Pilot Error Needs NTSB Attention

 - December 1, 2011, 1:55 AM

A small uproar in pilot forums and AOPA “safety” blogs greeted the criticism by some former FAA and NTSB experts of the American and United pilots’ decisions to land at DCA when the sole air traffic controller on the midnight shift fell asleep one night in March this year. While FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt–a former ALPA president–focused all his safety outrage on the hapless controller who fell asleep, surely in part because of the FAA’s own decisions to leave the midnight shift at the nation’s capital airport with just one controller, he completely avoided the real safety issues posed by the landings of two different airlines at DCA without a clearance from the control tower.

While the FAA took disciplinary action against the controller who fell asleep (and Hank Krakowski, head of the FAA Air Traffic Organization [ATO], resigned), I have heard nothing about the Potomac Tracon controller who seemed to encourage the airlines to land at DCA as though silence from ATC transformed a controlled field into an uncontrolled one. I assume the American and United crews filed ASAP reports and would thus be immunized against company discipline and FAA enforcement. However, immunity does not indicate that the action was legal under the Federal Aviation Regulations; the crews were clearly not in accordance with the FARs, which prohibit landing at a controlled airport without a clearance from the airport’s air traffic control tower.

Hold Controllers, Crews Responsible

But now that the NTSB has issued its report of the incident, faulting both the Potomac Tracon controller and the airline crews, why silence from the FAA Administrator? Can the former union president criticize airline pilots when they err? Isn’t aviation safety more important than his former constituency? And as a former union safety rep, I know as well as anyone the importance of separating government safety functions from prior union advocacy. As an NTSB Member, I quickly learned that there was no room for partisanship when it came to safety reviews or recommendations. I would think that by now, Mr. Babbitt would have learned that as well. He does not serve the pilot community or the flying public when he fails to confront pilot errors as significant as landing at DCA without a clearance–and with no emergency preventing a diversion to Dulles, a mere 26 miles away, or a go-around until a clearance could be obtained.

What continues to be just as disturbing–mindboggling, actually–is American Airlines’ defense of its pilots’ decision to land without a clearance, even in the face of the NTSB’s report. This is particularly troubling because I, and other safety experts, suspect that the pilots’ decision to land was at least in part the result of financial pressures from the airlines that employ them. (Pilots, and other aviation workers, frequently internalize all the cost-saving and job-cutting pressures, and when it comes to critical decision-making may well take actions accordingly.) Clearly, it is more expensive to go around or divert. There are increased fuel costs and other incidental, but not insubstantial, costs of delays. 

By continuing to support the pilots’ decision to land when it is clearly not appropriate–and certainly not to the highest degree of safety that air carriers are held to by statute–American sends the not-so-subtle message that it is OK to flout the rules when it saves the company money. How dangerous is that? 

And how dangerous is it for the FAA not to call American out on this? If American really interprets the FARs to allow one of its airliners carrying hundreds of passengers to land at DCA when no tower controller responds to radio calls, I would say there are real questions about its continuing authority to operate as an air carrier. A company’s public message should not be dismissed so idly.

I am reminded of PBS’s excellent documentary Flying Cheap, about the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, operating as a Continental Connection, outside Buffalo, N.Y. Fifty people died in that fiery crash on Feb. 12, 2009. The documentary, among other things, shines a harsh light on all the warning signs the FAA ignored of Colgan’s rapidly eroding safety culture. What struck me, as it struck the PBS producers, was an NTSB hearing on a Colgan captain’s ATP revocation that preceded the Buffalo crash by only a few months. 

Even though the revocation case involved a Colgan Air captain’s falsification of a load manifest to indicate that an aircraft operating out of LGA was within proper weight and balance when, in fact, it was over gross, Colgan sent its director of operations to testify for the captain and against the copilot who blew the whistle on the captain’s illegal and clearly unsafe operation. Although the FAA was obviously aware of this–after all it was the FAA’s revocation case that was the subject of the NTSB hearing–the FAA never questioned the airline’s qualifications to operate when its highest-level managers condoned such outrageous and unsafe conduct in pursuit of profits.

How different is American’s conduct and the FAA’s tacit support? 

And, last, let me say that AOPA does its pilot members no good when it takes a knee-jerk, emotional approach to supporting pilot errors. I was particularly chagrined to see its safety foundation president condemning a number of former government safety officials who questioned the American and United pilots’ decisions to land. In his blog, Bruce Landsberg condemns the second-guessing by these safety experts and proclaims that the actions of the pilots were justified by the FARs. But this is a serious misreading of the rules applicable to flights in and out of DCA. There was no loss of communication. There was no emergency. The rules required a clearance from the control tower. Period. Blindly and publicly supporting an incorrect and inappropriate decision does not further the interests of aviation safety.

As far as some of the airline pilot forums I read supporting the American and United pilots’ decision, it is distressing to read that so many of them seem to have forgotten that airline pilots are held to a higher standard than other pilots. In fact, airline pilots–just as airlines themselves–are held by law to the “highest standard” of safety. Landing at DCA without a clearance from the tower can hardly be called the highest standard of safety.


John, stick to commenting on things you have experience with, flying not being one of those. Since the great bulk of airports in this country are uncontrolled it is the norm, not some freak occurance, when a pilot lands at an airport without any ATC clearance. There is no FAA regulation preventing the actions taken by the crews, so come to the realization that pilots really are the final authority as to the method a flight is conducted. Period.

And since when has ATC become the perfect entity for ensuring safety; given all
the errors and screw ups that ATC has committed in the recent past.

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