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Complacency is the biggest risk to airline safety record in the US

24-May-2010

As regional airlines gather this week for the Regional Airline Association convention in Milwaukee, they remain under the safety cloud created by the 12-Feb-2009 Colgan Airways accident, but they should be heartened by last week’s National Transportation Safety Board professionalism symposium which gave the industry the clear good marks. Many panelists expressed how impressed they were with some regional programs. Even so, it also provided enough criticism to keep that cloud overhead. Indeed, it is hoped that the Regional Airline Association will give a progress report on its single level of safety initiative launched after Colgan. Many questions remain surrounding 'good regionals' and 'bad regionals'.

The good news

Anyone observing last week’s National Transportation Safety Board’s three-day forum on aviation professionalism, could not help but be impressed with the level of dedication and the number of aviation safety programs recounted by the 50+ panelists testifying in Washington. In fact, one couldn’t be blamed for walking away wondering why this symposium was even necessary given the very impressive heavy lifting on safety that is going on in such industry-sponsored programs such as Air Transport Association’s Commercial Aviation Safety Team, IATA’s Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) among many others. The Regional Airline Association launched its One Level of Safety initiative only after Colgan’s accident.

Since Colgan, the FAA testified, 40 US airlines now have FOQA programs, half of which are regionals. FAA also said it has received 214 memoranda of understanding for setting up Aviation Safety Action programs. Ironically, Pinnacle, Colgan’s parent company had already introduced FOQA before the Colgan accident and was on the cusp of expanding it to its new subsidiary when the accident happened.

After three days, the only conclusion to be drawn from the recounting of all the government, academic, union as well as regional and mainline programs designed to improve safety, is that the system is working and is, in fact, very successful. Statistics certainly bear out the fact that aviation is, indeed, the safest form of transportation. And, the system is always striving to make it better, thanks to all the work described over the three days.

At the same time, airline, unions and the Federal Aviation Administration panelists cast the system as being so benign and nurturing as to be too good to be true and, of course, it is. All the kudos flying last week could well drive a sense of complacency and it is that, more than anything, that could destroy the impressive safety record the industry has achieved. Indeed, that was what happened with Colgan. Despite a serious of pilot-related accidents among regional airlines, the Regional Airline Association chose to rest on the headline of an early 2007 USA Today article proclaiming the aviation’s safest year in history, punching at it in response to a safety question.

So it was with a sense of relief that testimony also covered the cracks that are forming on the safety fuselage.

Data-driven safety initiatives

A second conclusion is inescapable – the data-based trend monitoring of programs such as Flight Operations Quality Assurance, Aviation Safety Action Program, Line Oriented Safety Audits, Line Oriented Flight Training and a whole host of other programs, are working. That, after all, is largely why aviation safety has improved exponentially since they were begun in the mid 1990s.

If one can be forgiven for thinking that all is well with aviation safety, judging from testimony, the families of those lost in Colgan 3407 sitting in the audience must have felt more than a twinge of anger. If, indeed, the solution is so much a part of aviation’s DNA, why, then, did they lose so much?

And that was the frustrating undercurrent that ran throughout the three days. It is clear from the testimony that it is all there and all the tools are in place. Given the programs, the union codes of conduct, the dedication of airlines to not only go above and beyond the minimum regulations but to continue to improve every day, it is clear that we know what to do to maintain and improve safety. And with the trend monitoring programs, it is also clear that the industry is too impatient to wait for an accident to improve safety. 

The question then becomes how to apply all these high cost and high quality methods to the reality of today’s regional airline operations? How do you transmit that pride, professionalism, ethics and dedication to safety to the farm team and beyond that to training schools that, because they are being paid by the student, are under some profit-oriented obligation to get that student, however weak, to pass.

Panelists answered as one – stressing leadership, professionalism, dedication to standard operating procedures from the first day a student sits in a ground school class in one of the thousands of aviation academies in the country. They also indicated that selection is 90% of the battle and regionals not only do a poor job but do not know the tools that are readily available to train recruiters. Finally, they agreed there should be more off ramps for students who do not measure up to what have to be extremely high standards if they are going to become professional, passenger carrying pilots whether in flightseeing, corporate or airline operations.

Regionals still on the firing line

While the NTSB should be commended for broadening its professionalism symposium beyond regional airlines, they were clearly the focus, at least with NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman. The elephant in the room was how hard it was for them to produce professional airline pilots. Yet they do, every day, according to the Flight Safety Foundation which has long contended that the regionals it has studied are experts in both hiring and training successful pilot candidates.

Ever mindful of the families and the victims, NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman hit the mark when she indicated that the farm-team approach to gaining experience at regional airlines is unacceptable. She reiterated that when a passenger buys a ticket on an airline they should have a well-trained, professional crew, not one that does not already meet the high bar set by the major airlines. And those that testified agreed.

“Why are we assuming that Part 121 regional carriers is the training ground for becoming a real pilot,” she asked, expressing some impatience with the assumption that panelists still seem to accept that the farm team approach is okay. “I don’t understand this sense that they are the pipeline. They are not the pipeline. They are the mainline. The pipeline needs to be further back. Regionals are not pipeline for the majors. There are 18,000 pilots at the feeders, they fly 50% of the enplanements and there are three feeder flights for every one mainline. Their exposure is very high. Given that, one of the questions is how much these carriers spend to hire a pilot. It seems to me, the selection burden falls more heavily on the feeders because they just don’t have the experience. They don’t really have the money. The system seems very broken. We have to at least, make a better effort at screening and selection, and here, the ones who have the least have the greatest burden.” 

Panelists indicated, while it is up to regulators to set the minima and the standards, they are painfully inadequate when it comes to the ensuring aviation safety. That is not to say, however, they should be made more stringent, although training standards clearly need to be stiffened substantially. About the only issue questioned by everyone was the ability of candidates to keep taking the various tests until they passed. It seemed a universal truth they should be restricted to a highly reasonable, three-strikes-and-your-out standard.

Professionalism

Much of the time was spent on defining professionalism, which was unnaturally difficult although it was not for lack of trying. Most cited Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt’s admonition that, no matter how it is defined, professionalism cannot be regulated; that it is just in the makeup of individual airmen or not. The same can be said of airlines who reject the minimum standards in everything they do in favor of a far higher standard.

Hersman likened the struggle to Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography – he knows it when he sees it. And that, in fact is what most testifying said. But it was Hersman, herself, who defined it when she conducted the Colgan accident hearings – it is doing the right thing every time, even when no one is watching, because it is the right thing to do. Indeed, panelists ultimately agreed with her.

“At Convergent, professionalism includes three pieces of cross check – consistently exceeds the minimum standards, continues to improves and helps other to do so,” said Tony Kern, Ed.D., president, Convergent Performance. “Compliance plus, continuous improvement and professional engagement, is what it takes. And peer-to-peer support and mentoring is vital because there is a whole group coming into the industry that does not share our professionalism. The problem with unprofessionalism is small but growing. ”

Barriers to entry

Part of the problem is the declining respect for pilots and interest in aviation as a career. Perhaps the biggest barrier to entry for pilots is the cost of education. “Right now there are 54,000 major airline pilots and 18,700 pilots working for the feeder companies,” said Judy Tarver, vice president, FltOps.com. “The demand over the next 10 years will be about 42,000 pilots. We have to try to determine how to make the structure work. In fact, the industry and government may have to spend more money to fund pilot training. If they can’t get the funding it will be more difficult. The cost of training is now prohibitive considering the return on investment. There is an illusion that there is a large pool but what the airlines don’t seem to realize is they are all tapping the same pool and that will be depleted before they know it.”

The cost is also high for the carriers who know that the process of developing the recruiting infrastructure runs up against the fact that most regional pilots, just as they always have, will leave within two to three years. Indeed, regionals used to train pilots requiring a certain number of years of service before they moved on in order to defray training costs. They found that unenforceable and clearly unworkable in the wake of the mainline and low-cost hiring frenzies in the last three decades.

Captain Craig Bentley, managing director of operations, Cape Air/Nantucket Airlines testified it takes about seven or eight years to develop an airline pilot. His company has a unique program, which received high marks during testimony last week, working with accredited aviation universities it starts students in their sophomore year of college and brings them along through college training, company experience and ultimately into the cockpit. Panelists reported that the success rate was much higher with students from accredited training programs. The program includes JetBlue as a partner in which the successful pilot candidate can eventually transition to the low-cost carrier.

It was developed in 2006 when Cape Air’s washout rate was 30% and with it, the airline reduced its washout rate to 2-3%. It began working with the University of North Dakota and Embry Riddle University to develop the Cape Air/JetBlue university aviation program. “Over the course of next seven to eight years, those accepted into the program are groomed, mentored, coached as they make their way through the program,” said Bentley, saying the basic requirements include a 3.0 grade point average and two recommendations from faculty. “They serve in internships at Cape Air, on the ramp and the SOC,” he said. “They serve as a flight instructor at the university for a year after graduation and then return to Cape Air serving for about 23-30 months, predominantly in the Part 135 operation. They will gain all the operational experience needed – flying into high-volume airports, weather, fog, icing, thunder storms. They may also serve in Cape Air’s Part 121 commercial operation. Then, if they are ready, and JetBlue is hiring, they are granted an interview and if they pass that and JetBlue’s training they move to the Embraer 190 or Airbus A320. With this, they have a known career path that works. We are working with a few airlines and universities to expand the program. They have a defined goal and career path. It may take them seven or eight years but they know it is achievable. The pay is a little higher than standard for the industry but it produces safety-driven pilots with an enthusiasm for flying having acquired the experience and excellent judgment that comes with it.”

Tarver indicated that a compounding problem is the fits and starts of a pilot hiring programs at regionals. Rather than continuously seeking good applicants, once they have reached their quota they close the hiring. Then when they need pilots again they need them yesterday and that often cannot happen that fast without a continuous hiring plan. “Companies are not pro-active,” she said. “They are reactive. They have to take the initiative to develop a quality pool whether it means investing in that operation or not. They need to take advantage of the tools available to train recruiters to make a better selection.”

Ethics and morale

According to safety experts, much relates to the dilution of the professional morale which can be attributed to many things including apathy, boredom, complacency and routine non-compliance which experts cited as a real danger.

Panelists also described three factors at play – airline distress, low entry-level pay, pilot images – and reported that often students are berated for selecting piloting as a career. The interest in aviation as a career has dropped by more than half since 2004 to only 13,000 high school students. Worse, this declining interest has yet to be felt in the industry as those who are interested look to corporate and military aviation for their careers.

They recounted the beating the 100,000 pilots and controllers that remain in the industry have taken in the last decade as crews dealt with the near destruction of the airline industry after 9/11 and controllers withstood the anti-union and un-collaborative management style of the Bush Administration. This is, of course, compounded by the fact that airline employees have watched their livelihoods diminish or vanish, their airlines enter and exit bankruptcy, all while the gap between employee and C-suites widens to an obscene level. One panelist said that money is a big reason people don’t go into industry.

Second, the demands of the professions themselves and the fact they are no longer viewed as great or even good jobs. This has resulted in a lack of enthusiasm for aviation at all levels, but especially among young people, contributing to the shortage of new pilots entering the pipeline. Indeed, the pipeline itself is under fire as the panels compared the scattershot method of training pilots in the US to the highly structured, screening and ab-initio training that takes place abroad.

As with the US, the KLM Flight Academy training it paid for by students. Delta also had such an academy which was recently sold off. The Dutch training academy, also privatized from Air France/KLM, has set up an insurance system to help. Should they be successful, the USD180,000 cost student loans are usually paid off in eight or nine years with a normal standard of living and help from the carrier, according to Chris Haber, Training Manager, KLM Flight Academy, who noted that students come to them straight out of high school. If not, the training is insured in case of early termination.

Listening to panelists and safety experts such as the Flight Safety Foundation, if anything should be changed, it is how we train our pilots. But, that would raise costs at a time when neither the airlines nor the government have the money to follow KLM and Lufthansa in developing their own pipelines with ab-initio training companies. It would, however, be interesting to see how much could be saved by having more robust selection and training programs. Clearly, they seem to have found the solution in Europe.

Finally, there is the influence of society which favors short cuts, deception and a general trend toward a the-ends-justify-the-means philosophy such as lionizing the likes of Gordon Gecko. “People in their fifties and sixties grew up in a period that was ethically different then today. We are setting the stage for a problem that will only grow,” said Kern. “Casual non compliance is a slippery slope because we never know when those other external risks will line up to cause a bigger problem. We have to train people aviation is different, it relies on compliance.”

Panelists are already seeing a lot of falsification of pilot records in an effort to meet qualifications for multi-engine flying time. Further complicating the problem, they said, is the “I’ve-got-mine-so-I-don’t-care-about-anything-else” mantra that pervades society. In fact, it is feared that the dilution of ethics, especially in young people who openly admit cheating on tests, and flaunting legal authority will ultimately creep into the cockpit. Hersman said she is really bothered by the ethics of next generation.

“We are experiencing the beginnings of our own shoddiness,” said Kern. “We need new ideas not just knowledge and data. We have to move out of the zone of mediocrity. We also have to deal with those who hide weaknesses. High achievers, such as pilot tend to do that. We have to give them not only the technical skills but the tools for self management. The Gods of technology will not help us with this one. They have to know that if they are going to step across the line to be a professional aviator, there are a different set of rules at play. We need education to see this catches on. We need a culture shift in our industry. Our belief is our industry is becoming infected and those infections are small and they may be localized. Many are aware of what’s going on but we don’t know what to do about it. It is only natural as this infection takes hold, it will spread and cross a line.”

The real world

More than one panelist – whether from a major airline or regulator – testified how impressed they were with regional programs. Even so, the question then becomes how to ensure all regionals meet the high standards of their major partners, not just some. Rumblings during the past year reveal that the Colgan accident created a rift in the industry with those regionals that go above and beyond against those that do not.

In response to suggestions majors should set up mentoring programs which received a lot of attention last year, Randy Hamilton, director of training at Compass Airlines, a Delta Connection owned by Delta, said mentoring sounds condescending to regional ears. “Things like partnerships don’t,” he said, explaining Delta’s practice of bringing the Connection airlines together at least three times a year to share best practices. “Legacy carriers made a lot of mistakes so there are a lot of things we can learn so we don’t repeat mistakes.”

It turns out, however, from the testimony by Air Wisconsin, Compass, Cape Air and Horizon, that most majors have set up operational partnerships with their regional operators to share trends, safety information and best practices. United has had a regional safety auditing program almost from the outset of the United Express program which dates back to the 1980s.

While the Air Transport Association continues to say majors should not have to ensure the safety of their regional partners since FAA is the single arbiter of safety, it is definitely on the wrong side of the argument. Their reliance on the whether or not regionals meet minimum safety standards for cover when it comes to the debate is universally rejected by its own members who reject those standards as inadequate. Its members already have such programs well underway for their regional partners and are required to have similar auditing programs for their alliance partners.

How many hours?

One of the more interesting facts emerging from all the testimony dealt with raising the number of hours for regional pilots. Both the board and panelists understood that it was not the number of hours so much as the quality of the pilot that matters. Many held up the military pilots as the gold standard for training, but noted that those entering the cockpit for the first time after training had less than 500 hours and often, as few as 250 hours. KLM Training Academy and Lufthansa reported the same thing.

NTSB Vice Chair Christopher Hart clearly reflected the bias. “This is not about stick and rudder skills or the capability of flying for the airlines,” he said. “It is about professionalism, shoddiness and sloppiness. I’m concerned we are losing the pipeline of military-trained pilots we’ve had over the years. I don’t think we’ll ever again see the world class military training. So we have to have that in the civilian world. We have to come up in the civilian system that has a robust wash out process that is not if you eventually pass the test you are in.”

Conclusion

There is much to praise in industry efforts at aviation safety. To their credit, regionals have come a long way equaling the major carrier accident rates by 1994, just as they set out to do during the mid-1980s safety crisis. Now, like their major and low-cost carrier counterparts, regionals are looking for ways to keep on improving. So, just as with professional pilots, most will be compliance plus, continue to improve and have professional engagement to ensure safety. The one thing that remains is using the peer-pressure to make sure all regionals get there, not just some.


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