FAA Safety and Training Standards Essay

The US Federal Aviation Administration is poised to shake up commercial airline pilot training standards in response to the February 2009 Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 crash on approach to Buffalo, New York that killed 50 people and raised serious questions about pilot fatigue and upset-recovery competence. Discuss pilot training in general and why concerns are being raised today. Does Australia face the same concerns? Where has pilot training gone in the past 20 years in Australia? What are the trends? What is the global outlook?

Aircraft: Bombadier DHC-8-400

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Crash site: Colgan Air Flight 3407

February 12, 2009: Colgan Air Flight 3407 from Newark Liberty International Airport to Buffalo Niagara Int’l Airport stalled and crashed on approach

Two pilots, two flight attendants, forty-five passengers and one resident were killed. The accident was not survivable.1

The cause of the crash was determined to be pilot error. There were no mechanical failings.

An NTSB board member asked if the crew could have recovered safely, Colgan’s head of pilot training Paul Pryor replied simply: “Yes.” Wally Warner, of Bombardier, also told the panel that the crew had not reacted properly. “Obviously the initial reaction to the stall warning was incorrect. That set the course of action for what followed,” he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the primary contributor to the crash was pilot error. The Captain responded to the stall alarm and ‘stick shaker’ by pulling up on the steering column; this exacerbated the situation and doomed the aircraft.

The investigation by the NTSB focused most on the factors that allowed an ultimately avoidable crash to occur. The safety issues highlighted are;

* Crew response and monitoring failures

* Airspeed selection procedures

* Stall training

* Pilot training records and remedial training programs

* Pilot professionalism (‘sterile cockpit’ and leadership)

* Fatigue and commuting

“We have seen similar issues in other investigations, like the Air Sunshine accident, where the pilot had multiple test failures. This report raises serious questions about the effectiveness and oversight of pilot training. It is disturbing to hear of the numerous times that the captain failed only to be passed along in his career. In many respects, this is like a student getting passed from grade to grade, and at the time of graduation, never having truly mastered the subject matter.”

Chairman Deborah Hersman – NTSB

The Colgan crash has highlighted a gap between major and regional airlines.

A better trained pilot would have avoided the crash

Pilot training is fundamental to safety in the aviation industry. The Colgan air crash was caused because the pilot responded poorly after the stick shaker was activated; “startle and confusion”. A pilot with sound experience and training should have recovered from this situation easily and calmly.

There were a number of other failings that included the first officer sending text messages prior to takeoff, which is against regulations. Further, the pilot had failed numerous proficiency tests. Prior to joining the airline the pilot had failed three “check-ride” tests however he disclosed only one on his job application; after joining Colgan Air he failed a further two check-rides. Family of the crash victims were disturbed by these findings and have continued to be vocal about what they see as a “preventable tragedy”.2

John Kausner, who lost his daughter in the crash, said the accident revealed to the public that there are two standards for commercial aviation — one for the major airlines and a lesser standard for regional airlines. “We were trying to buy a ticket that was most affordable, and unfortunately, we bought her demise”. “We thought it was safe. We’re finding out that it is getting less and less safe, specifically on the regional (airlines). There’s not one level of safety. There’s two levels of training, two levels of susceptibility and that’s what we’re trying to change.”

The head of the NTSB Deborah Hersman was critical of the FAA, saying many of the problems in the Colgan Air crash involved issues identified in previous crashes. She said “For years, many of these issues have been highlighted in our safety recommendations – the Safety Board’s own call-to-action to the FAA and industry. Some have been included on the Safety Board’s Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements.”

In response to safety concerns, US Congress passed a bill last year to raise the minimum flight hours to 1500. Some have described this as ‘over-kill’, but many have applauded the emphasis on safety.

“We’d like to see a proper appraisal of where the industry is going because there is a line in the sand that we don’t wanna be mourning passengers on a commercial jet in this country because it could have been avoided.”

Barry Jackson of the Pilots Association discusses Australian aviation safety on Lateline

Low cost carriers and demand for pilots is distracting airlines from safety issues as they struggle to meet demand for flights and competitive pressures

Safety standards in Australia are high, and flying is the safest way to travel in Australia. However there are some concerns that improvements in safety standards have been plateaued, and that action needs to be taken to ensure accidents do not occur.

Aviation consultant Dick Mackerras told ABC’s Lateline “There are a lot of pressures, financial pressures. The low-cost carrier model, which is now endemic around the world, puts a lot of financial pressure on organisations which they tend to transfer unfortunately to their pilots.” The low cost carrier model has put a great deal of competitive pressure on the industry and part of this has created incentives for pilots to work hard – creating fatigue issues, and for airlines to promote pilots earlier then they would have previously. Essentially the demand for pilots has meant that airlines have relaxed the experience standards for pilots, because they do not have the luxury of their historical cost and revenue bases that have been chipped away by price competition.

Senator Nick Xenophon has raised concerns about safety standards citing the December 2008 Qantaslink Dash-300 Turboprop which nearly stalled twice in 10 seconds on approach to Sydney Airport. Here the plane was being flown by a first officer with only 220 hours of experience on the type of plane and the captain was completing paperwork during the approach. This regional incident was a near miss that has been compared to the Colgan Air Crash3. This incident was an embarrassment for Qantas whose pilots said that such a breakdown in cockpit procedural standards had not been known since the 747-400 Bangkok crash landing in September 2009. Further concerns have been raised about Qantas’s aging fleet that has contributed to a spate of media reports of mechanical failings on flights.

Qantas’s low cost airline, Jetstar, has also been criticised for allowing first officers with only 200h flight experience when previously the industry standard was around 1000h. In contrast, the US has legislated that pilots must have a minimum 1500 hours to fly as First Officer on commercial flights.

Aviation remains safe, but constant improvement is a necessity

The global outlook on aviation safety is mixed. On the bright side, there is awareness of potential problems in the industry and an acknowledgement that something needs to be done. However the cost pressures of a global recession and increased competition from low cost carriers remains an issue in the industry. Despite the downturn there remains a shortage of pilots, and a shortage of good pilots with sufficient experience. On its face, the minimum 1500 hours stipulated by congress in the USA should mean that there is an experience ‘floor’ for pilots in the country.

However, this will likely add to cost pressures as pilots with the appropriate experience will become more expensive and more sought after. Importantly, training is a long term commitment and it takes time to build up and maintain a ‘stock’ of high quality pilots. This legislation may also mean that US airlines absorb a large number of more experienced pilots leaving airlines in other countries with a less experienced pool of pilots (on average).

Improvements in the economy are also likely to make safety and training improvements more easily affordable. In the last few years, airlines have been trying to lower their cost base to offset the decline in passenger revenue. This has created a serious disincentive for airlines to invest in safety and training more than they need to as the more immediate struggle is simply to remain financially solvent. That said the worst of the recession has passed, and the Australian economy in particular is increasingly bullish. Hopefully this will make improved safety more viable. Some reports also suggest that Qantas needs to upgrade and improve its fleet to save money on fuel costs and lower increasing maintenance costs which are eating into their profit margins.

There are certainly promising signs that safety standards are still being raised and that the industry remains appropriately safe. The FAA announced in October that the number of serious runway incursions fell by 50% for the second year in a row, and that the use of technology has been effective in increasing safety.

In conclusion, it is the pressure on pilots that creates most concern in the industry. The demand for pilots has allowed experience standards to slip and encouraged carriers to push the limits on fatigue. The industry is, however, moving to address this and the sector remains a safe means of travel.

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