One on One: An interview with Randy Babbitt
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 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 for a new management approach that is scientifically based.
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 going to fix them only with a rededication to professionalism.
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 the regional service. That competition is economic, 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 [airline transport pilot] certificate. My belief is that we need 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.
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’s where you’re 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 a rulemaking. 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 of times what we are bound by is the congressional rules of inclusion, and then these things have to 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 the same people putting burdens on you that slow you down.
Often we go back and forth with the NTSB. The NTSB has the advantage–I’ll call it adverse selection–that they investigate something that’s already happened, and they can put a lot of people and a lot of focus on everything surrounding that and they often find deficiencies.
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 [notice of proposed rulemaking] 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 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.
While business aviation has a safety record almost equal to that of 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 the status quo is never good enough for safety. There are always improvements that we can make. Technology can give it to us, knowledge will give it to us, experience will give it to us. We can keep improving.
In the short term, one of the things we’ve seen, and maybe it’s because of technology, is that 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.