I really thought we had heard the end of the FAA’s one-level-of-safety mantra after Colgan Air Flight 3407, masquerading as a Continental Airlines codeshare, crashed in a fiery ball in a residential area just outside Buffalo, N.Y., one snowy February night four years ago. All forty-nine people on board the aircraft were killed, along with one person on the ground. That accident, and the NTSB investigation that followed, made it plain that the levels of safety between a major airline like Continental and its regional carriers–like Colgan–are not the same. From pilot experience to training to crew rest there was nothing remotely comparable on that Colgan flight to what Continental’s pilots bring to the cockpit. (If you don’t believe me, watch PBS’s Frontline investigative report titled Flying Cheap, which is available free online.)
After the accident, then-FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt hastily convened an airline safety summit with the purported goal of ensuring that all Part 121 air carriers, mainline and regionals alike, in fact maintain the same levels of safety. The purpose of the summit was to put some much-needed truth in the one-level-of-safety buzzwords.
FAA Slow To Act
Unfortunately, after a small flourish of activity and the passage of a few years, the FAA’s attention drifted and so did its commitments, at least according to a DOT Inspector General report, issued to coincide with the Colgan accident’s four-year anniversary. The report harshly criticizes the FAA for its failure to live up to some of the commitments it made in the wake of the Buffalo accident. One of the commitments the FAA failed to live up to, according to the IG report, was a review of contractual agreements between the mainline carriers and their “express” or “connection” carriers to see whether the agreements contained economic disincentives to safe operation.
Among those economic disincentives highlighted by the IG were contractual requirements for on-time performance imposed on the regional carriers by the majors. The IG and other safety advocates have questioned whether these requirements cause regional carriers to push performance over safety. It’s not exactly farfetched to think that a regional carrier and its crews would be influenced by economic factors when deciding whether to, say, push the weather or have maintenance come look at a problem. How much time could it possibly take the FAA to look through these agreements? There are only a handful of major airlines left, and how many agreements could there be to review? 10? 20? 100? Not exactly a huge number.
In addition to these commitments, the FAA has clearly been dragging its feet in implementing changes mandated by Congress in the wake of the accident, including greater airline pilot experience requirements. Although a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking with a 60-day public comment period was issued on February 29 last year, the industry and various alphabet groups are lobbying hard for exemptions and exceptions. Knowing the FAA, this will lead to delay, more study, more delay and…you get the picture. In response to the DOT IG report and the criticism of various congressmen disturbed by the delay in implementing their legislation, the FAA is once again trotting out its old standby myth that all the airlines, major and minor, operate under the same level of safety.
But before I continue, let me give some quick background information on the FAA’s one-level-of-safety spiel. 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 airlines. 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. Colgan was one of those airlines previously operating under Part 135 that was forced to transition to the more stringent regulations. Today all scheduled U.S. operators are operating under Part 121 rules. And thus began the FAA’s one-level-of-safety storyline.
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 those at many regional carriers. This doesn’t make the regionals unsafe, but it does make many of them less safe than the majors.
So, how do we stop the FAA from spewing this one-level-of safety nonsense and get on with the business of really putting the regionals on the same safety level as the majors? I think this will happen only if we get some strong leadership in the Department of Transportation. As I see it, the FAA is too tangled up in bed sheets with alphabet groups to ever do anything that these groups don’t want done. Just look at the repair station rule that has been in the making for more than two decades. Yes, 23 years and counting.
Does anyone think the FAA would have grounded the Boeing 787 fleet–with their fire-prone batteries–without some sharp prodding from the DOT? That body, in turn, apparently needed some prodding from the Japanese.
What heartens me these days on the safety front is talk that NTSB chair Debbie Hersman is being considered for the top job at the DOT. While she would be missed at the NTSB, she would be a breath of fresh air at the Department, where transportation leadership needs to filter through all the modes, including the FAA. I am convinced her forthright, no-nonsense style is what’s needed to quit the endless stalling and get things moving at 800 Independence Avenue.
And I know that no amount of industry lobbying–or FAA stalling–would get her to back off her commitment to a kid’s seat rule, which would ensure that each aircraft passenger (including the youngest and most vulnerable fliers) would have to be properly secured in his own seat.