Call to Inaction

At a hearing of the House Aviation Subcommittee 23 September, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waxed eloquent about the wonderful results of Call to Action meetings the agency held around the country in July and August. Look at the fine print before concluding the meetings were a resounding success.

The Call to Action conclaves with FAA, airline and pilots union representatives were triggered by the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) hearings in May regarding the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, which was operating the flight for Continental Airlines. The NTSB uncovered all sorts of problems with pilot hiring, pilot training and experience, crew scheduling and airline practices generally. (See Aviation Safety Journal, ‘Crash Investigation Reveals Gaps in Airline Safety System’)

Randy Babbitt, FAA Administrator, told the Congressmen that the meetings were a resounding success, in which many issues were thoroughly aired and in which airlines fervently promised to improve their safety practice. As Babbitt testified, “We made this call to action to encourage the aviation industry in this country to come together to share their best practices across the board and implement actions we know can improve safety.

“We have received a wealth of information from the Call to Action, and we are taking several steps to use that information to make the industry and travelling public safer,” he extolled.

The meetings were noted by various FAA press releases, which positively bubbled with enthusiasm over these conclaves (sample title of one press release: ‘Call to Action Leads to Improvements in Pilot Training and Better Access to Pilot Records’).

Capt. John Prater, President of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), and other ALPA representatives were at these meetings. Their take is, to put it mildly, slightly less overly-enthusiastic. As Prater told the Congressmen, “Action was noticeably absent.”

Captain John Prater of ALPA  before the Aviation Subcommittee.

Captain John Prater of ALPA before the Aviation Subcommittee.

For insight into what really happened at these regional meetings, read deep into Prater’s written statement to the Subcommittee:

Minneapolis – I don’t think everyone was as forthcoming as they wanted to be. Some people were very honest, but many felt that if they spoke up they might be singled out later on. I did not like the format; we ended up with an “open mic [microphone] night” where people could comment at random and it was very disjointed that way. We didn’t come up with very many solutions but I feel we could have if we had stuck to one issue at a time. My biggest complaint was the lack of participation by the FAA. At our meeting, the local and regional FAA inspectors filled up the back half of the room and not one of them made any comment at the meeting.

I felt that many of the industry (airline) managers there were putting too much of the fatigue onus on the pilots. More than once I heard the comment, “If you are too tired to fly, it is up to you to call in and say that.” While I agree accountability lies with the pilot, it is the responsibility of the company to make schedules that allow for rest. This is not just a problem for commuters – you can live in domicile and still be plenty tired from poorly constructed trips and long days (a point made at the meeting by one of our pilots).

Atlanta – Sadly, though a myriad of concerns and complaints were aired, none received any further discussion, debate or prioritization. In other words, several folks talked for a few hours, but the leaders of the discussion never chose any suggestions or user input to examine further by the group. There were no conclusions, or resolutions, or even ideas labeled as worth a second look.

Dallas – Who knows what will become of these conferences? If the future is anything like the past, I fear we may have participated in well-orchestrated window dressing. We spoke several times and made several points. They included:

— We are done with the tired refrain of “if it’s legal, it’s safe!”

— The reason why a crew scheduler feels comfortable with demanding a pilot to fly a fatiguing schedule is because the FAA allows them to!

— Don’t call us together and ask our opinion and then ignore us like the FAA has done in the past!

Here’s betting that Babbitt didn’t get any feedback like this in gung-ho after-action reports submitted by his FAA minions. And only Congressmen willing to plough through written statements would be aware of how the Call to Action meetings were regarded as so much window dressing. In his oral testimony, Prater didn’t recount particulars of the regional meetings, other than to suggest there wasn’t much that was actionable coming out of these group-gropes.

Prater suggested hard requirements for improved practices. Given the FAA’s penchant for “window dressing” and slow-rolling NTSB recommendations, Congress is now considering H.R. 3371, the “Airline Safety & Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009” to redress many FAA deficiencies. Every Congressman should read the full text of Prater’s statement on the Call to Inaction meetings before voting on this bill.