Disheartening’ Development Ignores the Obvious:

Regrets and lamentations are being expressed all around about the demise of a safety-related reporting system, but required actions that would have prevented this imbroglio are being studiously avoided.

The latest regret comes from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). According to a statement, the Board “is concerned” that the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) has recently been discontinued at some airlines. Notably, ASAP has been suspended at American Airlines, Delta Airlines and subsidiary Comair Airlines, largely because the pilots unions do not trust management to receive reports of safety mistakes without punishing the pilots admitting the mistakes (see Aviation Safety & Security Digest, ‘Safety Reporting System in Limbo Over Trust Issue,’ briefs section).

Mark Rosenker, Acting Chairman of the NTSB, said the suspension at some airlines of ASAP is a huge setback for proactive safety:

“The Safety Board is concerned that these proactive, voluntary disclosure programs, in which pilots, mechanics, and dispatchers become additional ‘eyes and ears’ dedicated to aviation safety, are no longer available at several major air carriers. ASAP programs are a critical tool for addressing potential safety issues.”

ASAP basically complements FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance) programs. Under FOQA, such things as premature flap deployment are recorded, and these deviations from prescribed procedure are flagged for review. Basically, FOQA tells what happened and ASAP provides the human input as to why it happened.

The Allied Pilots Association (APA), the union of American Airlines pilots, charged that management was using ASAP as a disciplinary resource. Kevin Cornwell, an APA spokesman, said, “We will not accept any process that labels our pilots as reckless, and discipline for inadvertent safety events must stop.”

Tim Wagner, a spokesman for the airline, said the union has simply refused to extend a pre-existing agreement.

Meanwhile, Robert Sturgell, acting chief of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has weighed in with a completely ineffective plea:

“It is disheartening to see some of our carriers and pilot unions abandoning these programs at a time when we need them the most. I encourage you to separate safety from the labor issues and put these programs back in place.”

Vacuous pleadings, though, began with the NTSB in January 2007, when it issued an 18-page letter containing a raft of recommendations to the FAA as a result of the Board’s investigation into the fatal crash of a Pinnacle Airlines regional jet. The accident occurred in 2004, when the pilots, on a positioning flight, flew the airplane to 41,000 feet, stalled, were unable to restart the engines, and crashed.

Among its recommendations, the NTSB called for ASAP and FOQA programs (Pinnacle had neither):

“Strongly encourage and assist all regional air carriers operating under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 121 to implement an approved Aviation Safety Action Program and an approved Flight Operational Quality Assurance program. (A-07-11)”

Rosenker cited this recommendation in his recent plea to restore ASAP.

The recommendation was really toothless, as evidenced by then-administrator Marion Blakey’s response of April 2007:

“We encourage all airlines operating under part 121 [regularly scheduled operations] to voluntarily implement an Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) and a Flight Operational Quality Assurance Program (FOQA), while acknowledging that few regional operators participate in FOQA [and] … the FAA agrees that further participation in ASAP should be encouraged and assisted.”

On the basis of this declaration, the NTSB declared that its ineffectual recommendation was “Closed – Acceptable Action.”

Why ineffectual? Simply put, neither FOQA nor ASAP have been required at airlines. The two programs have been consistently hailed for their contribution to proactive safety, but they have been voluntary, not part of an essential program to monitor both the technical and human factors elements of safety.

If the programs were required, the ongoing labor-management disputes would be resolved in short order and all Part 121 carriers would comply with what are regarded as essential building blocks to air safety.