September 23, 2009
“A Couch With Her Name On It”
On February 12, 2009, a fatal regional airplane crash near Buffalo, New York, killed 50 people. During the probe into the deadly crash, investigators have so far found evidence that pilot fatigue and pilot error played a role. The tragic crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center has now come under intense scrutiny, highlighting the importance of regional aviation safety and the need for better training and stricter regulation of pilots, particularly those flying regional and commuter routes.
The investigations into the pilots flying the doomed Continental Connection flight found that the captain had lied in his job application to Colgan Air, a subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines, Corp., and the operator of the ill-fated flight, about his failed check rides. He only reported one of three failed FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) check rides in his application. Investigators also discovered that the co-pilot had flight-hopped across the country from Seattle where she lived with her parents to Newark, her home base, in the early morning hours before the flight. According to officials, she had told a Fed-Ex flight crew that the Colgan pilot lounge at the Newark airport had “a couch with her name on it.” Investigators surmised that the young co-pilot could not afford to live in the New York area on her low starting pilot’s salary.
After reviewing tapes and records of the flight, investigators believe that the pilots made critical mistakes in the moments leading up to the crash that violated protocol and contributed to the fatal crash of the Buffalo flight.
New Bill Creates High Hopes for Aviation Safety
In late July, both the House and Senate introduced independent legislation as a result of the Flight 3407 crash. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced the “Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009” which would strengthen the FAA’s safety programs and reform the aviation industry by improving pilot training and inter-carrier accountability, mentoring and aviation safety-related practices. The legislation also has an aim to reduce pilot fatigue and make pilot records more accessible.
Among other things, the House bill considerably increases the flight hours required for an airline transport pilot license (from 250 to 1500 hours), mandates training on stalls and stall recovery, requires pilot mentorship programs, demands comprehensive pre-employment screening by airlines and calls for the maintenance of a pilot records database to provide airlines with easy access to a pilot’s entire flight record.
Additionally, the bill mandates that the FAA create a new “pilot flight and duty time rule” and plans to monitor fatigue risk in pilots. The bill requires air carriers to create fatigue risk management systems. Regional airlines, which have been accused of using less rigorous safety and hiring standards than national carriers, face the potential for stricter safety inspection standards under the bill: the bill requires the Inspector General to report back on whether regional carrier safety inspectors have adequate experience to ensure passenger safety on regional flights.
The Senate Commerce Committee also approved a similar bill titled “The Federal Aviation Administration Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act.” The bill will reauthorize FAA operations for the next two years and requests an independent scientific study on pilot fatigue. The findings of this study will then have to be included in the FAA’s upcoming flight-time and duty-time rules for pilots.
The Senate bill has been delayed by the current Health Care debate, but will soon be moved to the senate floor for a vote. A conference committee will then merge the House and Senate bills before a final bill is considered by both houses.
Meanwhile, the FAA has been working on updating “propeller era” rules and establishing new rules and guidelines that deal with flying time and pilot fatigue. Legislators hope that the new FAA rule, scheduled to be released on November 19, will make significant leaps in preventing pilot fatigue.
Aviation Tragedies Prompt Stricter Regulation
In many regulated industries, catastrophic events can propel significant changes in regulation. In the case of regional air carrier safety, however, greater regulation years ago may have prevented some recent airplane accidents.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, pilot ability may have been a factor in the vast majority of regional air carrier accidents in the past 10 years. Pilot fatigue related accidents have also long concerned the board, which has included pilot fatigue on its list of “most wanted safety fixes” since 1990.
With the recent action on aviation safety legislation, it is clear that congressional representatives are taking the reports on pilot ability and training seriously. Some in congress disagree with the notion that regional carriers share the same level of safety as the major airline carriers, even though the FAA imposed one level of safety for the entire carrier industry in 1995. The proposed legislation seeks to increase pilot training and development to create a baseline standard for all commercial pilots, whether they fly major or regional carriers.
However, proposed legislation does not address one major concern: pilot pay. Pilots and safety advocates argue that pay has deterred more experienced pilots from taking jobs with regional airlines, where pay scales are lower. Proponents of the bill hope, however, that raising the training and development standards of pilots will eventually equally affect the standards in wages. Legislators also hope that the FAA will have addressed the issue of wages during their update of aviation safety rules.
Finally, proponents of the new legislature hope that implementing stricter aviation safety-related practices and directly managing the issue of pilot fatigue will greatly improve passenger and flight safety for all air carriers, including commuter and regional carriers.