Torqued: Thoughts on Safety During the Time of Covid-19

 - September 1, 2020, 8:30 AM

Like many of you who have spent your lives in aviation, looking at the devastating effects of Covid-19 on the industry, especially its workers, has been heart-wrenching for me. And if things do not improve soon, the worst fallout is yet to come as the government assistance that has kept many of our aviation workers employed runs out. Without another bailout, the layoffs from the largest airlines to the smallest mom 'n pop repair shops will be staggering, along with similar consequences at all the industries large and small that rely on aviation to generate their own revenues.

While some private flying has seen a resurgence—and that’s a wonderful thingthat resurgence in a limited part of the aviation industry is not enough to maintain an industry critical to large swaths of the population that cannot afford to fly privately. The airline industry needs to come back for all of aviation and the country to prosper again.

Of course, one way to help get the airline industry back on better financial footing is to lower the rate of infections across the country and make passengers feel safe traveling. Without a vaccine or better treatments, for passengers to feel safe traveling the most critical requirements I see are standardized regulations for passenger travel. Those should include mandatory masks, appropriate distancing in the terminals and in the aircraft, as much as possible by, for example, loading from the back of the airplane and blocking middle seats. Hodgepodge, unenforceable guidelines that vary from airline to airline do not make passengers feel safe. There are too many photos on Twitter and other social media of unmasked individuals—including now a U.S. Senator—on crowded flights and those photos are not exactly encouraging to many would-be flyers, whether leisure travelers or the economically critical business flyers.

I hope that by the time you read this, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has done the right thing and issued mandatory regulations binding on both the airlines and the passengers to promote uniformity during this crisis. Of course, Congress could step in and write a law, as it did to prohibit smoking and imposing mandatory penalties. Whether it is Congress or the DOT, someone needs to do it as soon as possible. And, no, I do not think it should be the FAA setting or regulating these health safety standards. The FAA is understaffed enough in normal times, dealing with the myriad safety issues, including the fallout from the two 737 Max crashes and the additional regulatory burdens of overseeing both unmanned aircraft and commercial space operations with just a few thousand inspectors.

While the impact of Covid-19 on the aviation industry is disastrous, perhaps the one area where there might be a safety benefit is in the availability of qualified pilots. Until now, the ever-increasing pilot shortages might have led to hiring practices at some airlines that appear not to have been rigorous enough to ferret out pilot deficiencies or to keep unqualified or marginally qualified pilots out of the cockpits of air carrier aircraft. The recent National Transportation Safety Board analysis of the 2019 Atlas Air Flight 3591 crash in Trinity Bay, Texas, is indicative of this problem, one that has been highlighted by other accidents, including the Colgan Air crash in February 2009. In the Colgan accident, four crew members and 45 passengers were killed plus one person on the ground. In the Atlas Air crash, a Boeing 767 cargo flight for Amazon, both pilots and the deadheading pilot of another airline were killed when the aircraft crashed as it descended to land at Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

While the NTSB’s final report is not yet out as I write, this abstract has been issued by the Board. The summary concludes that the first officer—the flying pilot—incorrectly responded to the aircraft’s inadvertent go-around mode activation and the captain failed to recognize what had occurred and take appropriate action in a timely manner. The Board surmises that the copilot became disoriented and made “nose-down control inputs that placed the airplane in a steep descent from which the crew did not recover.”

“Although compelling sensory illusions, stress, and startle response can adversely affect the performances of any pilot, the first officer had fundamental weaknesses in his flying aptitude and stress response that further degraded his ability to accurately assess the airplane’s state and respond with appropriate procedures after the inadvertent activation of the go-around mode,” said the NTSB.

The Board found contributing factors to the accident to include “systemic deficiencies in the aviation industry’s selection and performance measurement practices, which failed to address the first officer’s aptitude-related deficiencies and maladaptive stress response.” Another factor was the FAA's failure to implement the Pilot Records Database in a “sufficiently robust and timely matter.”

So while the Board’s investigation found that the first officer had repeatedly lied deliberately to Atlas Air and at least one other air carrier about his past deficiencies, those shortcomings could have been uncovered by more stringent actions by the air carriers reviewing pilot applicant backgrounds, although the FAA’s proper implementation of the Pilot Records Improvement Act was also cited as a contributing factor.

All fatal accidents are, of course, tragic to the families and friends of the victims. They are particularly dismaying when factors contributing to the accident have been called out in earlier accident reports. In this case, the Colgan crash a decade earlier highlighted the problem of pilot deficiencies that were not adequately revealed in the hiring process and not properly acted upon when revealed subsequent to hiring. As in the Atlas case, in the Colgan crash, the Board found the probable cause of the accident to include the captain’s inappropriate response. In the Colgan case, the inappropriate response related to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall. The NTSB investigation indicated a history of the Colgan captain’s failed check rides and training failures dating back over a period of almost 18 years.   

One of the NTSB’s recommendations related to the Atlas crash includes having a subject matter expert, not just human resource personnel, involved in the review of a pilot’s background history. This makes a lot of sense to me and could eliminate the hiring of pilots with a history of flying deficiencies.