Monday, July 13, 2009

Senate panel misses the point on aviation safety delays by FAA

Senate panel misses the point on aviation safety delays by FAA

By: Barbara Hollingsworth
Examiner Columnist | 6/22/09 5:46 AM

Leave it to Congress to hold not one, but two public hearings and still not get to the heart of the matter: For at least six years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has failed to heed warnings by airline pilots who reported serious safety concerns that put the public at risk. And the very same safety issues are still not being adequately addressed now.

Like the first hearing held a week earlier, last Wednesday’s inquiry by the Senate Aviation Subcommittee focused on the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, which killed all 50 people aboard and one on the ground. The lack of adequate training and pilot fatigue were cited as the two major contributing factors by FAA administrator Randy Babbitt and National Transportation Safety Board acting chairman Mark Rosenker.

However, neither Babbit nor Rosenker mentioned the fact that FAA had been warned about these same issues six years prior to the Colgan crash by commercial pilots with sterling cockpit credentials and decades of flying experience. Instead of being commended for their candor, these pilots were medically grounded in retaliation for speaking up. Instead of defending their own members, the Airline Pilots Association looked the other way as their lives and careers were ruined.

Yet not one of these former pilots were called to testify before the subcommittee, even though several offered to do so and even traveled to Washington at their own expense. Consequently, none of the senators, including chairman Byron Dorgan, D-ND, asked Mr. Babbitt exactly how he planned to prevent future suppression of mandated safety warnings by airline and FAA officials.

Former United captain Dan Hanley, head of the Whistleblowing United Pilots Association, wasn’t allowed to tell subcommittee members that he was forced out of the cockpit after complaining about pilot fatigue – the same issue the subcommittee is now investigating - and that the same kind of legal and economic pressures the airlines experienced after 9/11 still prevent pilots from voicing their concerns.

A former Continental pilot said that a physician who fabricated a medical diagnosis that permanently grounded him after he filed a safety complaint now works for the FAA, so those who muster the courage to speak out are still being threatened with losing their jobs. But because he wasn’t allowed to testify either, Babbitt wasn’t questioned about it.

An overworked young pilot told me that calling in to report excessive fatigue means he will not only lose his own pay, but his entire flight crew would also be docked as well. This policy puts added pressure on sleep-deprived pilots to fly even when physically impaired.

Why didn’t the FAA address the pilot fatigue issue before 51 people died? Babbitt should have been asked, but wasn’t.

Airline passengers literally put their lives in the hands of airline pilots every day. They should be appalled to learn that the federal agency with direct responsibility for aviation safety has ignored safety warnings by pilots and allowed airline management to interfere with its mission to protect the flying public. And that members of Congress are still letting them get away with it.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is the Examiner’s local opinion editor.

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