The air traffic control tower at Reagan National in Washington, DC (image: Brendan Hoffman/Getty)
Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The Federal Aviation Administration is long overdue in completing rules for better airline crew training in response to a fatal crash in 2009, according to a federal watchdog that says the agency must overcome industry opposition.
The deadline for a rule for better crew training was Oct. 1, 2011, and the deadline for a rule about pilot qualifications was Aug. 1, 2012, according to a report from Jeffrey Guzzetti, assistant inspector general for the Department of Transportation.
The 25-page report said the FAA made "considerable and important progress" in a variety of safety initiatives, but "poor communication between FAA and industry is impeding progress on several initiatives."
In a written response, the FAA said the agency delivered seven reports to Congress, initiated five rules and continued work on four other rules.
"Safety is the FAA's mission," the agency said Monday in a statement. "The agency's goal is to remain vigilant to maintain the nation's excellent safety record which is a direct result of an unwavering commitment by government and industry to work together to monitor data and identify trends to prevent accidents."
The rules at issue in the inspector-general's report were proposed in the aftermath of the Colgan Air crash on Feb. 12, 2009, which killed 50 people. Key findings from safety investigators blamed the crew for not knowing what to do as the plane iced up while approaching the Buffalo airport and stalled before crashing into a house.
In response, the FAA proposed to increase the minimum training for airline co-pilots from 250 flight hours to 1,500. Exceptions were made for military pilots with 750 hours of training or pilots with four-year degrees and 1,000 hours of flying.
The FAA now expects to complete the rule in August - one year late. But if the agency misses that deadline, the rule will go into effect without exceptions for pilots from the military and college graduates.
"FAA has not taken steps to ensure carriers and FAA inspectors are ready to transition to these new pilot qualification requirements," the inspector-general's report warned.
Regional airlines, for example, have warned that they could have trouble finding pilots with enough training. At two regional carriers visited by the inspector general, 75% of co-pilots didn't have the new certificate.
Still, relatives of the victims of the Colgan crash have pushed aggressively for FAA to boost qualifications and pilot training. The families plan a lobbying visit to Congress next Tuesday and will hold a news conference to press for the FAA rules.
"Each year since the crash we have remembered our loved ones with a candlelight vigil at the crash site at 10:17 p.m.," says John Kausner of Clarence Center, N.Y., whose daughter Ellyce died in the crash. "But as we hit year four, and as the industry continues to throw the kitchen sink at the FAA in the hopes of stalling or watering down these critical safety initiatives, we feel the need to remind everyone in Washington ... that the job is far from done."
Another rule 15 months overdue "due to significant industry opposition" would require pilot training in simulators to work through emergencies such as the stall in the Colgan crash.
FAA said in its statement Monday that more than 90% of airlines use voluntary programs to report safety problems, which has led to significant improvements in training, operations and maintenance. The work of the safety team has reduced the risk for fatalities in commercial aviation in the United States by 83% from 1998 to 2008, and the FAA has a goal of cutting the risk in half by 2025.
In a written response to the report, Clayton Foushee, the FAA's director of audit and evaluation, said the FAA is continuing to develop policies as directed by Congress.
The FAA communicated regularly with industry officials to ensure compliance with the pilot training and airlines have developed new-hire training, Foushee said.
The FAA had qualified nearly half the pilots needing the new certificate by October 2012, he said. Most carriers are aware of the looming deadline and have taken steps to meet it, he said.