Game Changer: Flight Safety Foundation Weighs in on Pilot Training

Independent safety experts are being ignored in favor of legislative politics

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

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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.”

Being bold

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.”

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Science Over Politics: Confirm Landsberg to NTSB

Congressional questioning of NTSB nominee reveals Congressional hyprocricy

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.

 

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NTSB Nominee Bruce Landsberg took fire from senators for his comments the 1500-hour rule is a solution in search of a problem.

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.

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Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill) There is so much to admire about Senator Duckworth but her stance on aviation safety is not one of them.

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.

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Source: Office of Tammy Duckworth Numbers don’t lie. They do if you leave out the rest of the story.

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.

 

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