Friday, June 12, 2009

FAA is still ignoring the warnings

FAA is still ignoring the warnings

By: Barbara Hollingsworth
Examiner Columnist | 6/11/09 3:52 PM

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials have failed to act on some 450 recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to improve aviation safety, acting NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker told members of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee yesterday.

The panel is investigating the fatal crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo.

"Some have been ignored for as many as 10 to 15 years," Rosenker added.

The list includes two recommendations specifically designed to prevent mid-air collisions with gliders. During the last two decades, nine people died and three were injured in preventable mid-air collisions between motorized aircraft and gliders. There have been dozens of near-misses that could have taken many more lives.

But that's not all the FAA has been ignoring. The agency charged with ensuring the public's safety in the skies has not heeded warnings by highly qualified and experienced pilots, some of whom were forced out of the cockpit in retaliation for reporting their concerns.

Rosenker cited the problem of pilot fatigue as a major contributing factor in what Dorgan called a "stunning set of failures" in the Colgan crash. But in 2003, when former United Airlines captain Dan Hanley filed a federally mandated Airline Safety Action Report (ASAP) after listening to overworked pilots talking in a London bar about falling asleep on transatlantic flights and letting the aircraft basically fly itself, he was "immediately taken out of the schedule" and medically grounded on trumped-up psychiatric grounds in retaliation, ending an unblemished 35-year career as a naval and commercial aviator.

Pilots who are still flying told The Examiner that they have heard of similar medical groundings, which they admit have a chilling effect on their willingness to report serious safety problems they encounter in the air. But so far, no pilots have been called to testify before the Senate subcommittee.

Newly appointed FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told senators that his agency is upgrading training standards for pilots and plans to require all commercial carriers to have ASAP programs in place.

But Babbitt also defended the FAA's past treatment of whistleblowers. "I am convinced the FAA took appropriate action," he said, even though experienced pilots like Hanley, with decades of flying experience, were forced out of their jobs for raising exactly the same safety concerns Babbitt now promises to address.

Department of Transportation inspector general Calvin Scovel disagreed with Babbitt, telling subcommittee members that he has "concerns regarding FAA's failure to protect employees who report safety issues from retaliation from other FAA employees."

In other words, instead of rewarding airline pilots and even its own employees for speaking up about aviation safety issues, the FAA punishes them. This kind of culture is poisonous in an agency whose mission is to safeguard the flying public.

It was also quite surprising that during Wednesday's hearing, neither Rosenker nor Babbitt mentioned a 2007 Airworthiness Directive the FAA issued on the Bombardier Model DHC-8 series that warned of "erroneous/misleading altitude and airspeed information" from pitot static probes, devices that measure airspeed. If the probes malfunctioned on the Colgan DHC-8, Capt. Marvin Renslow may not have known his correct airspeed.

"Pilots learn on the second day of flight training not to get too slow," Keith Karnofsky, a former Eastern Airlines pilot and flight instructor. Karnofsky, who lives in Buffalo and runs the blog, told The Examiner:

"The [Colgan flight's] speed degraded from 180 to 130 knots in 25 seconds. Unless [Capt. Renslow] wanted to die, it couldn't have been him. There are characteristics of this airplane that would have made rapid speed loss highly probable" - characteristics the FAA was aware of more than two years ago.

Aviation "is a business in which one mistake is one too many," Babbitt told subcommittee members. But if that's the case, the FAA is well over the acceptable limit.

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