SPIN METER: A year after fatal regional airline crash, claims of safety progress questioned

By Joan Lowy, AP
Thursday, February 11, 2010

SPIN METER: Regional air safety gains questioned

WASHINGTON — A year after the fiery crash of a regional airliner killed 50 people near Buffalo, N.Y., regulators have missed their own deadlines for pilot-fatigue regulations for the smaller carriers and are still rewriting rules to improve crew training. They also haven’t done anything to address tiring long-distance commutes by regional companies’ pilots.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt has been talking up the safety initiatives his agency launched after the crash, declaring he’s “very pleased with the progress.”

But much of that progress is more illusion than reality. Despite Babbitt’s claims, the FAA has failed to require improved airline safety on key fronts.

The issue is an important one for anyone who flies — or knows someone who does — in every part of the country. Regional airlines now account for about half of domestic departures and a quarter of all passengers, and they are the only scheduled service to more than 400 communities. The Buffalo crash raised concerns that those smaller companies aren’t being held to the same level of safety as the major carriers.

Long-distance commutes by pilots before they take off were an issue in the Buffalo crash, but all the FAA has done is say it will ask stakeholders what they think should be done. Babbitt already has their answer: Airlines and pilots unions told him last summer they don’t want to regulate commuting.

Among those recently poking holes in the FAA’s claims of accomplishments are the National Transportation Safety Board, the Transportation Department’s own inspector general and members of Congress responsible for overseeing aviation.

They question the FAA’s figures. They complain about delays in some safety improvements and say others are poorly designed. And some lawmakers suggest the agency has bent to industry pressure to delay or weaken new requirements before they are proposed.

Lawmakers and the families of crash victims have asked that the flight experience required to be an airline co-pilot be increased from 250 hours to 1,500 hours. Airlines and flight schools reject that idea. Babbitt, after suggesting such an increase is unnecessary, has talked about setting the bar at 750 hours — a possible compromise.

The industry’s trade group, the Air Transport Association, denies trying to weaken or delay action, saying it simply wants any changes to be based on solid data.

Another FAA claim being questioned is the assertion that, thanks to its efforts, air carriers operating 94 percent of commercial airliners are, or intend to begin, collecting computer flight data in an effort to spot problem trends and correct them before they lead to accidents. That’s more than double what the FAA reported just last October — an unlikely increase, federal safety investigators say.

At a hearing last week on the cause of the Buffalo crash, Roger Cox, the transportation safety board’s operations group chairman, said the sharp increase was probably due to “verbal commitments that have been made in the 11th hour prior to this board meeting” to create the appearance of accomplishment.

The NTSB says the data-collection program is important.

The plane in the Buffalo crash was operated for Continental Airlines by regional carrier Colgan Air Inc. And investigators found that a co-pilot error at the beginning of the flight involving the computer entry of air speeds was the precursor for later events that caused the crash. If Colgan had had a trend-spotting program in place, the board said, it might have found and corrected weaknesses in the airline’s procedures that allowed air speed mismatches to go unnoticed.

Investigators were skeptical that all 11 of the regional airlines the FAA said it had signed up for the program would follow through, given past disinterest and the time and expense involved.

Colgan, for example, had a safety program on paper before the accident, but hadn’t implemented it, investigators said. After the accident, the airline promised to put a program in place by July. A year later, Colgan has made substantial progress but is still not at the point where it is collecting data, they said.

“What about all of the other the regional carriers? Do we have to wait for them to have an accident and to appear here to get them to have a (data-gathering) program?” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman asked.

“It does seem to be a motivator,” replied Cox.

Even carriers that implement the program sometimes gather data from only a fraction of their airplanes. One regional carrier participating in the program has 260 planes but has equipped only 10 of them with data-gathering recorders, said the NTSB’s Cox.

“So if you choose to creatively interpret that, you could say that all those passengers on all those miles and all those airplanes with that airline are counted as (covered by the safety program), but it’s very misleading,” he said.

Babbitt said some airlines are too small for participation to be practical, or they fly older planes that don’t have data-gathering capabilities.

But Inspector General Calvin Scovel said the FAA hasn’t offered a plan to encourage smaller carriers to participate, even though expanding the program to smaller carriers was one of the agency’s key goals in response to the Buffalo crash. He also said many airlines made only vague commitments to the FAA and offered no timetable but the agency hasn’t followed up with them.

Babbitt says crafting new regulations is a cumbersome and time-consuming process, and that’s why he’s chosen to pursue voluntary safety initiatives with airlines as well.

Changing the culture at FAA could also take time. During the Bush administration, the agency saw airlines as clients to be served. Last September, Babbitt ordered FAA employees to stop referring to airlines as their “customers.”

At a House hearing last week, Babbitt said it’s a misperception that the FAA’s actions are ineffective or insufficient. “The vehemence of the criticism FAA receives doesn’t comport with the safety statistics,” he said.

On the Net:

Federal Aviation Administration www.faa.gov

National Transportation Safety Board www.ntsb.gov

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