American Airlines Flight 331 Likely a Preventable Accident

The December 22 American Airlines Flight 331 accident that injured more than 90 passengers has left numerous questions unanswered. However, even before the National Transportation Safety Board determines a probable cause for this accident, two things are clear from the initial reports: we are fortunate that, in light of the circumstances, the injuries sustained were not catastrophic; and, more troubling, this scenario was likely entirely preventable.

2009 has proven an interesting year for airline pilots and the flying public. In January, we witnessed the heroism of Captain Sullenberger averting disaster and gracefully landing US Airways Flight 1545 in the Hudson River. Cockpit voice recordings reveal a calm and measured reaction to a bird strike, as well as a calculated decision to land the plane in the Hudson. His professionalism, training, experience and judgment prepared him to successfully and artfully land a plane under trying circumstances.

A mere month later, Continental Air Flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air, crashed into a house during approach near Buffalo, NY, killing all 49 passengers and crew as well as one person the ground. Unlike Captain Sully, the pilots operating this regional flight were sleep deprived, sick, distracted and flying in inclement weather. They lacked sufficient training and resources, and were thus unqualified to be flying a plane under those circumstances.

In October, two Northwest pilots missed their destination by over 150 miles and failed to respond to air traffic controller attempts to reach them. The pilots claimed they “lost situational awareness” because they were distracted, reviewing a new company policy on a laptop. Speculation surrounding this incident has focused heavily on the theory that the pilots were in fact sleeping, again highlighting the issue of pilot fatigue.

Which brings me to the events of Tuesday night in Jamaica. The facts as they unfold have many similarities – both from an operational standpoint, as well as the aircraft type and runway environment – to Southwest Flight 1248 overran its runway in December 2005. In the Southwest accident investigation, the NTSB looked at factors such as decision to land, calculation of landing distance on a contaminated runway, company braking procedures, as well as pilot training.

Reports indicate that Tuesday’s flight in Jamaica had sufficient fuel to return to Miami, yet decided to land on the contaminated runway rather than turn around. The pilots were near timing out for their flight hours for the day, which raises the possibility of pilot fatigue impacting their decision-making process and their operation of the aircraft. Was the decision to land made based on the safety of the passengers or – considering the pressure of holiday travel, passenger frustration, pilot fatigue and cost – did the pilots decide that the safety risk was worth it?

The numerous accidents and incidents of 2009 raise serious questions about what is going on in the cockpit. The over arching question is a serious one: during these economic times, is aviation industry creating a culture of undervaluing risk to save money?

Make no mistake, there are numerous technical issues that may have contributed to the scenario that unfolded on Tuesday night, as well as the lack of preventative measures that could have mitigated damages. Moreover, the risk of human error is everpresent, and for that reason we must advocate also for additional safety measure that minimize the impact of such errors. Nonetheless, the events and mistakes outlined above are not discrete individual incidents; rather, they are evidence of a deteriorating safety culture. We are entrusting the safety of passengers to tired, overworked, and often under paid pilots who have insufficient training and distractions in the cockpit. Congress must act to ensure that the business interests of airlines do not outweigh the safety of our passengers. In 2009, Captain Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” was an exception in a year fraught with serious safety hazards. But the reality is, he was not lucky – he was prepared. In 2010, let’s make his example the rule.