It was reported by USA Today last month that in nearly every serious regional airline accident during the past ten years, at least one of the pilots had failed tests of his or her skills multiple times. This conclusion came from an analysis of federal accident records. In eight of the nine accidents during that time, which killed 137 people, pilots had a history of failing two or more “check rides,” tests by federal or airline inspectors of pilots’ ability to fly and respond to emergencies. In the lone case in which pilots didn’t have multiple failures since becoming licensed, the co-pilot was fired after the non-fatal crash for falsifying his job application. Pilots on major airlines and large cargo haulers failed the tests more than once in only one of the ten serious accidents in this country over the past ten years, according to a USA Today review of National Transportation Safety Board accident reports.
Regional carriers have had four fatal aviation accidents since 2004, compared with one by a major airline. It was reported that regional airlines fly roughly half of all airline flights, carrying about 20% of passengers. As mentioned above in the Colgan story, the issue of pilot qualifications on regional carriers was at the center of the NTSB hearing into the Buffalo crash. It appears that the pilot at the controls when the plane crashed had failed five checks, according to records revealed at the hearing. Three of the accidents in which pilots had repeatedly failed tests involved a single airline conglomerate, Pinnacle Airlines. Interestingly, the Buffalo crash was on Colgan Air, which is owned by Pinnacle. The captain on a Pinnacle jet that crashed in 2004, after accidentally killing both engines, had failed seven checks.
The NTSB has voiced concern about a loophole in a law requiring airlines to check pilots’ records when hiring. The 1996 Pilot Records Improvement Act orders airlines to check pilot records from previous employers, but that does not cover failures that occurred while a pilot was in flight school. Airline pilots receive dozens of written and flying tests during a career. When a pilot fails multiple tests that should send up a red flag to anybody who has safety responsibility for both the FAA and the airline either employing or considering employing that pilot. After a meeting on June 15th, the FDA said it plans to:
• Write new regulations on how many hours pilots can work. Several efforts in recent decades have failed, but Babbitt said, “We will get a new rule.”
• Pressure all airlines to adopt safety programs that closely monitor data from every flight. All the major carriers use such programs, but many regional carriers do not.
• Improve the ability of airlines to research the flying records of pilots before they are hired. Currently, airlines are only required to look at a prospective pilot’s records at other carriers for the past five years. USA Today reported last week that at least one pilot in eight of the last nine regional airline accidents had previously failed multiple flight tests.
• Conduct a review by airlines and pilot unions into pilot training.
The FAA will continue to schedule meetings with airlines on safety in the coming months, according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. While safety experts said airlines deserve credit for making many voluntary improvements, they said the FAA also needs to follow up with tough enforcement. It seems pretty clear that the regional airlines need to improve safety practices without further delay. Also, there must be strong FAA oversight. Regional airlines, which mostly operate under contract to major carriers, fly half of all flights and carry about 20% of passengers.
Source: USA Today
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