By Kathryn B. Creedy
In the pilot training and experience debate, little coverage is given to independent safety experts who call for an overhaul in the way we train pilots. In all the political rhetoric, the two sides – Colgan families, a labor union and legislators vs. the regional airline industry – often talk passed each other while independent safety voices are drowned out by politics as the pilot shortage worsens.
The Flight Safety Foundation (FSF), one of the most highly respected aviation safety organizations in the world, issued a Position Paper calling for science-based pilot training solutions versus relying on a minimum number of hours to assess pilot quality.
Disappointingly, but certainly not a surprise, coverage was limited to the issuance of the paper and failed to explore the subject further. In fact, no one has explored what aviation safety experts think is necessary, despite the wide-spread agreement by experts who have no other motivation for their efforts than safety.
FSF conclusions echo a 2015 report by the Office of Inspector General calling for an overhaul in pilot training to address concerns in how crews monitor aircraft in an automated age. It cited the Air Asiana crash in San Francisco, the crash of a UPS cargo jet in 2013 and the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo, noting crews were not properly monitoring the condition of the aircraft and confirming training issues were not just restricted to regionals.
OIG also cited a 2010 Flight Safety Foundation study reporting 80% of the 30 veteran commercial airline pilots it studied flew manually under 10,000 feet but were unable to meet standards using only basic instrumentation if automation failed. Indeed, OIG and FSF recommendations are the same made by a score of speakers at last Fall’s Royal Aeronautical Society’s Maintaining Pilot Recruitment and Training Standards conference.
The question we should be asking legislators and ALPA is why they ignore the mounting evidence and the collective wisdom of what needs to be done from independent experts from around the world. They raise red flags on pilot training methodology that goes far beyond the petty war being waged by legislators on regionals.
Safety arbiters sidelined by politics
The nation’s two safety arbiters – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – openly admit they have been sidelined by politics in the wake of the Aviation Safety and FAA Reauthorization Act of 2010. This despite the fact during hearings on the bill before it passed, both rejected the idea hours alone are an appropriate metric of a pilot’s skill citing the fact all the pilots involved in regional and most commercial accidents had far more than 1500 hours.
FSF agrees. “It cannot be assumed that critical skills and knowledge will be obtained only through hours in the air,” said FSF President Jon Beatty, in releasing the Position Paper – Pilot Training and Competency. “A data-driven approach to pilot training is an essential element in continuing to improve the industry’s safety performance. Training must target real-world risk and ensure a progressive and satisfactory performance standard.”
Beatty countered assertions made as recently as the February 27th House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee hearing the outstanding safety record was due solely to the 2010 law.
“The results speak for themselves,” ALPA President Tim Canoll testified. “In the 20 years prior to the 2010 rule, 1,100 passengers lost their lives in Part 121 accidents. Since the rule that has been reduced to zero.”
ALPA’s statement is misleading since the 1,100 including 9/11, TWA 800 and other accidents, but ALPA would have you believe they were all, with their myriad of causes, resolved by requiring every pilot to have 1500 hours and the new law. In fact, the 1500-hour rule did not become effective until 2013 with no accidents in the intervening three years. Seems the industry got the job done without it.
But such reality doesn’t stop ALPA. When asked for a comment on the FSF report, ALPA spokesperson Corey Caldwell sent this: “While ALPA appreciates the work that went into the white paper, we are disappointed that the Flight Safety Foundation chose to omit the fact that since Congress passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Extension Act of 2010, there have been zero fatal passenger airline accidents in the United States. In the two decades prior to enactment of the law, which strengthened pilot training and qualification requirements, more than 1,100 people died in U.S. passenger airline accidents. This change in the law and associated rules have moved the United States into an environment where flight training, flight time, and demonstration of competency are well balanced – and has resulted in safer skies.”
On the contrary, FSF, rather than omit the relationship between the law and the safety record, addressed it head on.
“[The industry’s] outstanding safety record is attributed to a variety of factors and the diligent efforts of thousands of aviation professionals around the world…,” said the FSF press release. “It is not the result of any one factor, including any particular change in the hours requirement for pilot experience.” (My emphasis.)
In fact, it put credit for our safety record where it belongs.
Big data important to aviation safety
FSF cited the collection and analysis of safety data and information as key to mitigating risks before they lead to accidents. That risk-based approach clearly is successful and applies just as much to pilot training as any other aspect of aviation safety.
The regional industry has been saying for years the experience garnered by flying banners, reporting traffic and instructing is actually doing more harm than good based on data on how new hires fared in training. This was later confirmed by academic studies showing the quality of some pilots has deteriorated because they lose the professionalism and discipline so important to NTSB. As a result, regionals have increased their training footprint from 10 to 15 sessions.
“Pilot experience, which also is an important safety factor, historically has been associated with the number of flight hours accumulated over a pilot’s career,” FSF said. “What often is overlooked, however, is the quality of flight time and how it is accumulated. Was it in single- or multi-engine aircraft? In visual or instrument conditions? In a structured, professional environment, or in an often less intense, general aviation environment? The type of experience and the flight environment must be considered to provide meaning to the [flight hours] number.”
FSF’s final conclusion is simple: “[FSF] believes the pilot career path we have today will not take us where we need to go tomorrow. It is time to take a data-driven, pragmatic approach. The industry has reached a crossroads in determining how pilots need to be selected, hired, trained and mentored for career growth. Changes need to be made if the industry is to continue its stellar safety performance in an era of expected rapid growth in many regions of the world.”
FSF’s Position Paper, the OIG report, the collective wisdom of global experts and concerns raised by the regional airline industry itself, demand we put politics aside and clear a path for the future.
“The industry needs to be courageous and bold to make these changes and not simply rely on the ways of the past,” Beatty concluded. “Through these changes, the industry can continue to serve the needs of the airlines while enhancing safety standards on behalf of the traveling public.”