AIN Blog: Torqued: U.S. Safety Ratings of Foreign Countries Are Meaningless

 - September 1, 2012, 12:35 AM

Are U.S. aviation safety ratings of foreign countries meaningless?

The short answer is yes. FAA safety ratings of the aviation authorities of foreign countries are basically worthless to consumers who want to know whether a foreign airline is safe to fly. First of all, the ratings don’t apply to individual airlines but to the countries that certify them. And, second, even in that regard, the FAA doesn’t do a very effective job. I know. What else is new?

I got to thinking about the meaning of these safety or category ratings of foreign countries when an intriguing article in The New York Times caught my eye several months ago. The article in India Ink, the Times’s section on all things Indian, was headlined, “Is Your Pilot Getting Paid?” Sure, pilots’ wages are under scrutiny everywhere, but pilots still get paid some type of salary, right? Not if you’re a pilot flying for some Indian airlines, including government-owned Air India. 

You can see why that headline caught my eye. I mean, other than a Part 135 puddle jumper, airlines big and small pay their pilots, even if at some regionals the pay is less than a Wal-Mart greeter gets. After all, an airline can get away with cutting a lot of corners, but not too many airline pilots would keep flying if they didn’t get a regular paycheck. And since we don’t yet have drones in our passenger-carrying fleets, at least one pilot is still required. So usually when major skimping goes on at an airline, it’s in less visible parts of the operation, such as maintenance. 

But the Times article pointed out that Air India and several other major Indian airlines were not paying their pilots regularly. Air India’s pilots had, in fact, not been paid for months. Really! How do you get people to fly for you without a salary? 

Assurances for Passengers

Aside from the obvious safety questions that arise when an airline doesn’t pay its pilots–what are the stress effects on pilots when they don’t get a salary, and what else isn’t the airline paying for (again, mechanics and maintenance come to mind)–the other obvious question is what’s the FAA doing about India’s category rating? Shouldn’t Americans know from their safety regulatory agency that the airline they may be boarding at John F. Kennedy International Airport is flown by pilots who haven’t received a paycheck for months? And those who never fly Air India or who just don’t fly would probably still like to know the qualifications of the airlines flying over their heads. I sure would. After all, it was certainly more luck than anything else that the wreckage of Avianca Flight 52 managed to avoid killing people on the ground when that Boeing 707 crashed into a Long Island hillside in January 1990.

So can you be a Category 1 country–which means the country’s oversight meets ICAO standards–when your country’s national airline and its other major airlines don’t pay their pilots? If the country is India, the answer appears to be yes. Paying pilots is apparently not a safety oversight criterion the FAA considers. Or maybe politics–or, more precisely, diplomatic considerations–are playing a role? 

But before we get into whether India’s strategic role in the world–especially given its geographic proximity to our fickle ally Pakistan–could possibly influence its Category 1 rating, a little background on the FAA’s oversight of foreign aviation authorities is in order. The FAA–to its credit–began a bold new program in the aftermath of the deadly crash of Avianca Flight 52. That 707 crashed into a hillside in Cove Neck, Long Island, when it ran out of fuel on approach to JFK Airport.

Stunned by failures the NTSB uncovered in its accident investigation–including the failure of the pilots to declare a fuel emergency in accordance with international standards and the failure of the airline to have any flight following from dispatch after takeoff from Medellin, Colombia, as is required for all U.S. airlines–and determined to let Americans know whether the foreign aircraft flying in and out of the U.S. met international safety standards, the FAA began a program in 1992 to provide oversight, albeit indirectly. The agency took some international heat for doing this; after all, sovereign countries aren’t too keen on having the U.S. rate their compliance with international law. But to the FAA’s credit, it stuck to its guns–for once–and the International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program was born.

The idea behind IASA was to determine whether a country met the requirements of the Chicago Convention for overseeing its airlines. Because of the treaty obligations created by the Chicago Convention, the FAA believed that it could not directly inspect and blacklist specific airlines (the European Union seems to have no treaty problems blacklisting airlines so maybe the FAA needs to revisit its treaty interpretation) but it could take a back-door approach by determining whether a country met the ICAO standards with which signatories to the Convention are required to comply. Included in the ICAO requirements is a country’s ability to certify, monitor and enforce safety regulations against its own air carriers.

But assessing a country’s oversight capabilities has not been without pressure from the State Department. When I was at the Board, it was common knowledge that certain countries were deemed too diplomatically sensitive to get the category rating they really deserved. Some countries received extra help from the FAA to get them up to international standards without suffering the humiliation of being rated Category 2. (And note that even if a country is rated Category 2, its airlines can continue flying into the U.S., although no new or increased service is allowed.)

Which brings me back to airline pilots not getting paid. Maybe there is no specific ICAO requirement to pay pilots. But I would think that a country that allowed its airlines–especially its own state-run airline–to go months and months without paying its pilots would have more than a labor problem on its hands but likely a safety one, as well. Hello, FAA, are you listening?