By Kathryn B. Creedy
A slightly refreshing breeze wafted through Capitol Hill recently during Senate hearings on the nomination of Bruce Landsberg to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). He comes to the post after a distinguished career as president of the AOPA Foundation, executive director of the AOPA Foundation Air Safety Institute and long years ferreting out the cause of fatal accidents and offering up solutions to prevent future accidents.
Why is he so refreshing? He bluntly called the 1500-hour rule a solution in search of a problem and the lack of pilot qualifications a non-issue, echoing numerous other aviation safety experts, including the NTSB, who have dared to say the same thing.
Of course, this opinion raised the ire of senators who asked for an explanation. Most vocal was Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill) who attempted to score political points by lambasting the nominee’s position.
The hearings also served to expose Congressional hypocrisy.
Ironically, Duckworth outed her own contradictory positions on aviation safety since it is Congressional meddling that has inserted politics into aviation safety.
Congress sends mixed signals on NTSB
“Congress has given NTSB a unique mission to prioritize safety above all other concerns,” said the Senator from Illinois. “And NTSB’s role in providing clear guidance to Congress and the public on what is the safest course of action, irrespective of costs or political hurdles, is incredibly valued.”
Congress should heed its own advice – prioritize on safety above all other concerns – including politics that falsely suggests Congress is looking out for aviation safety. For the past seven years, it has preferred politics over safety and studiously ignored studies warning the rule has been counterproductive and actually compromises safety.
On one hand, she lauds the impartiality of the NTSB yet ignores the opinion of then-board chair Deborah Hersmann, who testified against the 1500-hour rule. By criticizing Landsberg, she again signals this supposedly impartial, do-what-is-best-for-safety agency should not do its job in applying science to this controversial rule.
Likewise, she, conveniently uses NTSB’s impartiality as a reason to oppose Landsberg but then, just as conveniently, ignores it when those at NTSB – the real arbiters of aviation safety – who testified an arbitrary minimum number of hours is a poor metric of pilot quality. Congress also ignored protests by the FAA, which echoed Hersmann’s testimony that there have been many accidents where pilots had 20,000 hours and still made mistakes. The FAA’s Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention (AVP) found little relationship between the 1,500-hour requirement and airplane accidents.”
In questioning Landsberg’s contentions about the 1500-hour rule, Duckworth, in fact, is violating her own stated desire to keep politics out of the NTSB because she does not like what it says. This is ironic, especially since the two pilots involved in the crash had far more than 1500 hours. In fact, the Colgan accident had far more to do with commuting than hours, which immediately became victim of the Congressional and ALPA politics despite NTSB findings commuting was an issue in the Colgan accident.
To his credit, Landsberg said he believed in “performance-based regulation as opposed to an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all rule.”
Indeed, that is exactly how aviation safety was once governed. Apply rules in a common-sense way to fit the operation. What would work for the major airlines would not necessarily work for the regionals or general aviation so tailor the goal to meet the differences in the operation so safety can be improved at all levels.
That is not what happened in 1994 after the industry experienced four accidents – two at the major airlines and two at regionals. Conveniently ignoring the mainline accidents, ALPA again went after the regionals and turned on its head the reasoning that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all safety regulation. The result was more abandoned communities.
Landsberg elaborated on his comments, saying all pilots (that means both before and after the rule) face the same certification requirements. He added pilots could take different paths to prove their skills, just as members of other professions don’t all go to the same schools.
“I don’t want this to be construed as I’m not in favor of high standards. I am,” Landsberg testified. “But I think it becomes no degradation of safety — that’s my litmus test — that people can meet the performance requirements as opposed to just saying you have to have 1,500 hours no matter what.”
Finally, he promised legislators he would “give independent safety recommendations on flight training without regard to industry wishes or political considerations,” according to Politico’s Morning Transportation Report (MTR). Let’s hope so.
Just the facts, Ma’am
Duckworth also needs to get her facts straight. MTR reported Duckworth cited 154 accidents in the eight years before the rule. The NTSB cited only six, three of which had nothing to do with pilot skills but were mechanical.
I queried Duckworth’s office suggesting such an important data point would have shown up before. I was right to question the gentle lady from Illinois. Turns out it was not the number of accidents but the number of fatalities illustrated by a chart, you guessed it, supplied by ALPA, according to her spokesperson Mark Copeland. Hardly an unbiased party given its entire effort was specifically designed to create a pilot shortage to win back regional flying for major airline pilots, however economically nonsensical that is.
Duckworth said the lack of accidents after the rule was proof enough that the rule worked, a favorite message from ALPA. But, anyone who has been in aviation safety for more than a minute knows there is always more to the story and restricting your argument to a single factoid is inaccurate if not, as in this case, purposely misleading.
A quick look at the chart reveals a few things. First, is attributes the lack of accidents since 2010 solely to the 1500-hour rule. You will note that no accidents – regional or larger – happened after 2009. But the rule did not go into effect until 2013. What happened?
Airlines were incorporating safety procedures such as safety management systems and other data-centric safety programs along with new technology in addition to the industry-led increased training footprint which added roll upset and stall recovery, two recommendations from the NTSB. These are recommendations aimed at the entire aviation industry, by the way, not just regionals, because pilot skills have been cited as causative in larger airline accidents. Ms. Duckworth and ALPA conveniently ignore the hard industry work because it had nothing to do with hours.
ALPA titled this chart Numbers Don’t Lie, ironic since it ignores one simple truth – the industry got the job done without the 1500 rule. But that doesn’t fit to ALPA’s narrative which also does not recognize industry efforts to increase safety in the immediate wake of the Colgan accident. If Duckworth and ALPA were truly honest they would have pushed the vertical dash line to the right to 2013 when the 1500-hour rule became effective.
No one will argue there should be zero fatalities, but, using Duckworth’s own yardstick, Landsberg is right. The rule is a solution in search of a problem.
What also bothered me about Duckworth’s misrepresentation was the assumption regionals were hiring 250-hour pilots. While that may have been allowed under the old rule. Does she have stats to suggest they actually were?
Why would airlines hire 250-hour pilots when there has been a surplus since the late ‘90s. The industry has been warning about pilot shortages for decades but it dodged three major pilot shortage threats, which meant airlines had the pick of the litter.
When pilot supplies tightened in the late ‘90s, the economy nose-dived with the Dot.com bust. That was followed shortly thereafter by 9/11 and the serial bankruptcies and industry consolidation that ensued when pilots were screaming about furloughs. Regionals were able to find plenty of pilots with plenty of time. The industry did not truly stabilize until about 2014/15 and so, too, did airline employment which was followed by true industry growth that was more than just recovery from the Great Recession.
Erring on the side of true honesty in this debate you should know regionals were advertising for 250-hour minimum for right-seat pilots. Even so, the fact that Colgan pilots had many more than 1500 hours makes that irrelevant, as noted by both the NTSB and FAA when they said pilots with thousands of hours still make mistakes.
Focusing on the goal – improved safety
Landsberg has yet to be confirmed which is a shame. During the RACCA annual meeting in 2016, NTSB’s Deputy Director Office of Aviation Safety John DeLisi made it clear the yeoman work done by the commercial aviation industry has paid dividends in improved safety. He said this allows the board to concentrate on general and business aviation.
Landsberg’s experience in this area is needed and he would be a valuable asset to the board’s efforts. The sooner he is confirmed the better.