June 11, 2009
No Quick Fixes for Enhancing Regional Airline Safety
Regulator, airlines, and pilots must work in concert over the long term
WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration’s “Call to Action” and Congressional hearings this week bring much-needed attention to the regional segment of the airline industry and attest to the long-time efforts of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA) to ensure that “One Level of Safety” exists across the U.S. airline industry in both policy and practice.
“While this week’s events focus attention on regional airline issues, the issues are complex and involve both labor relations and safety aspects. While we may be able to identify industry best practices in the short term, true quick fixes don’t exist,” said Capt. John Prater, ALPA’s president, who will testify [written/oral] before the U.S. House Aviation Subcommittee on Thursday. “Long-term solutions are required that must be carefully crafted through a joint effort by the regulator, the airlines, and labor.”
Most airlines, including most regional carriers, perform an outstanding job of hiring, evaluating, and training airline pilots. It is due to this commitment, along with industry and government cooperation and the exceptional skills and professionalism of airline pilots, that air travel is the safest mode of transportation today. “However, the aviation industry must remain relentless in its pursuit of safety,” continued Prater. “ALPA has long expressed concerns that some regional airlines are doing only the bare minimum required in critical areas, leaving no margin of safety that most other carriers build into their operations.”
The fundamental structure of the U.S. airline industry has changed dramatically in the past decade. Regional airlines are now forced to compete to provide a handful of mainline airlines with passengers at the lowest possible cost. In addition, federal regulatory requirements in key areas are woefully outdated, including flight/duty time, minimum hiring standards, and pilot training. As a result, intensifying economic pressure on regional airlines can create a disincentive to advance aviation safety in that segment of the industry.
“Today’s airline industry structure pits regional airlines against one another to secure contracts that allow them to provide passengers to mainline airlines at rock-bottom prices,” continued Prater. “As a result, those express airlines that spend more on safety than the minimum standards require and pay higher wages risk being penalized economically in the marketplace.”
Licensing and training methods that worked in the past may not be effective today, when airline pilots entering the profession do not have the background or experience of previous generations. A pilot’s capabilities cannot be measured simply in hours; a thorough evaluation of education, skills, and past flying experience is essential to developing effective training curricula. Moreover, regulators must provide adequate oversight to ensure that airlines conduct proper screening and evaluation.
ALPA has long maintained that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to pilot training is inadequate and that training must be precisely tailored to reflect individual education and experience. For new pilots, training must not only include how to safely operate the aircraft, but also teach how to fulfill the leadership role of commanding a flight crew.
Pilot professionalism is based on training, but mentoring also plays an integral role. New pilots must be given the opportunity to learn from pilots who have more experience flying the line. ALPA and other unions have a role by providing a robust professional standards structure that will assist experienced pilots in mentoring those with less experience.
“We must thoroughly review the assumptions made when we set minimum qualifications and training requirements and, if those assumptions are no longer valid, adjust our programs to provide an equivalent level of safety,” said Capt. Rory Kay, ALPA’s Executive Air Safety Chairman. “Pilot screening and hiring, training, and qualification standards are extremely important and should not be subjected to financial cost-cutting.”
For decades, ALPA has advocated for modernization of flight- and duty-time regulations based on science. Today’s patchwork of regulations is more than 60 years old and fails to reflect modern aircraft equipment and flight schedules and the current science about human factors such as circadian rhythms and the cumulative effects of reduced rest.
Finally, ALPA calls on the industry as a whole to scrutinize relationships between regional airlines and their legacy partners and to ensure that a commitment to the highest standards of safety is reflected throughout the airline brand. A strong corporate safety culture that maximizes tools such as proactive, non-punitive safety reporting programs to identify and address safety risks before accidents occur is more important than ever.
“Airline passengers who buy airline tickets today often believe they are flying on one airline when in fact they are flying on an entirely different carrier,” continued Kay. “Ensuring the highest possible standard of safety for our passengers means creating a corporate safety culture throughout an airline brand and throughout our air transportation system.”
“ALPA is extremely encouraged by the action under way this week,” concluded Prater. “We look forward to engaging with the regulator, Congress, and the airlines in what must be a deep and enduring commitment to making our nation’s aviation system as safe as possible and to restoring the piloting profession to a career that attracts, trains, and retains the world’s finest professionals.”
Founded in 1931, ALPA is the world’s largest pilots union, representing nearly 54,000 pilots at 36 airlines in the United States and Canada.
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