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Amy Fraher
Scholar/Military leader

Amy Fraher

Amy L. Fraher is a retired Navy Commander and Aviator,Director of the International Team Training Center at San Diego Miramar College. Her book Thinking Through Crises comes out Spring 2011

Obama's new airline law: Safety loopholes

President Obama's signing of the 'Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010' last Sunday was a promising step forward for improving aviation safety. But before we decide to rest comfortably on our next flight, let's take a closer look. The appointment of committees and task forces filled with many of the same industry insiders who overlooked these problems in the first place, combined with vague wording and compliance deadlines three years into the future means change in commercial aviation will come slowly, if at all.

No doubt pressure from the families of passengers on Colgan Air/Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed last year on approach to Buffalo-Niagara International Airport killing all forty nine on board and one person on the ground, increased the sense of urgency to pass this act. Yet, such pressure also may have placed limits on the scope and methods within which the legislation understood today's airline safety challenges. To understand these limitations, it's helpful to look at this crash and see how the new act would solve those problems.

Both the captain and first officer had limited operational experience flying their complex aircraft in icing conditions. Both had trained in accelerated civilian flight programs logging the largest percentage of flight time in small single-engine airplanes. And both had difficulty passing check-rides.

Moments before impact, the pilots unwittingly stalled their airplane while engrossed in conversation about commuting, applying to major airlines, changing aircraft, upgrading and the copilot's annual gross salary of $15,800. This lack of situational awareness was compounded by fatigue as both pilots, yawning repeatedly throughout the flight, had apparently commuted to their airline's hub in Newark the night before, sleeping in the flight crew lounge purportedly to save money.

Several key areas of H.R. 5900 map directly on to the shortcomings of this particular accident. Ignoring root causes and systemic indictments, the legislation identifies three key areas for safety improvement: pilot qualifications, professional standards and mitigation of fatigue, among others.

Without this law, a pilot with as little as 250 flight hours and no operational experience could be at the controls of a commercial airplane. The new safety act now requires airline pilots to have at least 1,500 flight hours, including appropriate operational experience. The act also redefines the airline transport pilot certificate to include "sufficient flight hours" to function effectively in a multi-pilot air carrier environment under poor weather conditions and "high altitude operations", requirements long overdue.

Yet, none of these changes take effect for three years; the immediate impact is zero. And although efforts to increase fledgling pilots' operational experience are laudable, the ambiguity of categories such as "sufficient", "appropriate", and "highest" leave these requirements undefined and difficult to enforce.

But the real point is the unexamined premise that increasing flight hours automatically increases competence. Without clearly defined criteria to measure operational experience, it remains entirely possible that prospective pilots following the new standards might accumulate 1500 hours of flight time working as flight instructors on cloudless days in Phoenix without ever encountering inclement weather, icing conditions, busy airspace or complex airline operating environments.

One might take comfort from the fact that the legislation also establishes a "Task Force on Air Carrier Safety and Pilot Training," giving it one year to evaluate "best practices in the air carrier industry" and offer recommendations about air carrier management and information sharing along with pilot training, professional standards and mentoring. But this Task Force, which terminates on September 30th 2012, is to be appointed by the FAA and consists of representatives from air carriers, labor unions and aviation safety. Can these industry insiders be critical of current industry practices and innovative enough to effect change by thinking outside the box? Without scrutiny continuing past 2012 and with only limited power, this Task Force becomes just be another non-regulatory body like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB): a pretty face with no teeth to take a real bite out of air safety problems.

Yet the Act also calls for a study of pilot scheduling, fatigue and commuting, major factors in the Colgan Air crash. Cold comfort for the fact that it fails to investigate why pilots commute in the first place and airlines' reluctance to pay pilots a livable wage. Although legislators are to be commended for their efforts to increase air safety, this Act does little to address either airline culture or systemic flaws contributing to the occlusion of safety by profit-making, a blindness continuing to limit airline regulations.

For decades, the NTSB called for many changes recommended here. Yet progress has been undermined repeatedly by the industry's financial concerns. Unfortunately accidents make regulators attentive. Do we need to wait for another tragedy to alert us to the scope of the problem? Isn't it time to approach airline safety from a proactive perspective, anticipating problems and not only reacting to them? Shouldn't we be looking for roots causes and systemic influences? Because after all, only this vision can prevent profit-seeking from continuing to trump safety in commercial aviation.

By Amy Fraher

 |  August 10, 2010; 9:37 AM ET
Category:  Government leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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As a frequent flyer the lack of focus on causality, measurable goals, and a ridiculously long time line to implementation of the new airline safely act makes me very uncomfortable. Dr. Fraher brings excellent points to light here, one of which is when are we really going to look at the systemic influences and root causes of the environment that creates this scenario over and over. We know that self-regulation by agencies that have shareholders is not successful. We also know using non-measurable criteria for laws, regulations and guidelines is useless and in this case dangerous. We need more people like Dr. Fraher who have been in the industry in many roles to be sitting on any Task Force if we expect change and a proactive approach to solving problems.

Posted by: pearhater4rl | August 13, 2010 1:27 PM
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The pilot on my United Express flight from Jacksonville to Chicago last Sunday looked like a high school kid working a summer job. He got us there in one piece but I am not sure I would want to fly into an ice storm with him. In 1993 a commuter jet went down in Hibbing Minnesota killing 18. The cause was pilot error by young pilots who were earning $12,000 per year. Not far away, Senator Paul Wellstone was killed on another icy November day in a charter aircraft with a marginally-qualified pilot. Again, pilot error. We put a lot of time and energy into frisking grandmas whose artificial hips set off our metal detectors. If we directed some of that energy into training pilots we might all be safer.

Posted by: Ralph-FL | August 10, 2010 5:25 PM
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Typical Obama administration "change" that is just more of the same but with a different name.

Posted by: solsticebelle | August 10, 2010 5:12 PM
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It looks like the same headline writer who calls Afghanistan "Obama's War" did this headline too. Doesn't Congress get some say in the language of laws? And don't lobbyists get to work with (or on) Congress to get language they like?

The things that Ms. Fraher does not like about this law might be compromises that were necessary in order for it to get passed.

Posted by: ad9inaz | August 10, 2010 4:29 PM
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Dr. Fraher raises important points about the limitations in our reactive approach to airline safety. As a frequent flier, I am deeply concerned about the ways that safety has been overshadowed by security in recent years. Yes, we need to be vigilant in relation to security threats. But what about worrying equally about the dangerous consequences of airlines cutting costs to maximize profits without regard for whether these cost-saving measures compromise on safety. When I step on the plane for the next three years, waiting for the new regulations to take hold, what's to guarantee the pilot isn't already exhausted by a long commute or overwrought about threats to her/his job security??

Posted by: dive4pearls | August 10, 2010 3:48 PM
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