Safety Pilot:

Non sequiturs in the politics of safety

November 1, 2010

Just in case you slept through high-school Latin, a non sequitur is a thought that does not logically follow what has just been said. A recent law passed by Congress, House Rule 5900, mandates that the FAA require new pilots hired by the airlines to have at least 1,500 hours total flight time and an ATP certificate. This is a classic case of good intentions that will likely have greatly unintended consequences.

The law grew out of the tragic Colgan Q400 accident in Buffalo, New York, in 2009 where the NTSB determined “that the probable cause of this accident was the captain’s inappropriate response to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which the airplane did not recover. Contributing to the accident were (1) the flight crew’s failure to monitor airspeed in relation to the rising position of the low-speed cue, (2) the flight crew’s failure to adhere to sterile cockpit procedures, (3) the captain’s failure to effectively manage the flight, and (4) Colgan Air’s inadequate procedures for airspeed selection and management during approaches in icing conditions.”

Crew fatigue because of extensive commuting; a captain with a weak training record, both before and after he came to the airline; Colgan’s poorly implemented training to rapidly transition crews into new aircraft types; and a lack of appropriate oversight by the FAA for transitioning pilots round out my list.

Nowhere in any of this are the first officer’s flight-hour qualifications mentioned as a cause or a factor, yet a law has passed addressing a nonissue. This non sequitur was caused by the understandable grief and outrage of the families who lost loved ones on the flight. They somehow were led to believe that the FO was underqualified and she was a proximate cause.

The FO played a role in this accident by not properly monitoring the captain, who was flying the aircraft; selecting the wrong reference airspeed for icing conditions; and not following procedure once the aircraft stalled. Yet, the captain’s lack of cockpit discipline prior to the accident and his completely inappropriate response to a stall were the primary causes.

The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) defended the crew’s actions: “The FAA Principal Operations Inspector described Colgan as a reactive versus proactive organization. The organizational culture at Colgan was primarily punitive.” ALPA cited questionable simulator fidelity and incomplete manuals and training on the aircraft stick shaker and stall recovery. That seems appropriate to the discussion at hand, but conversation morphed into a need for higher hiring requirements for FOs.

The Colgan FO had 2,244 total flight hours and 774 in the Q400—well above any legislated requirement. The AOPA Air Safety Institute reviewed U.S. air carrier accidents over the past 10 years: None was found in which the FO’s flight time or qualifications were causal or a factor.

The victims’ families were apparently advised that future accidents could be prevented with significantly higher FO requirements and that there ought to be a law. There was no factual support, but might it have something to do with the absurdly low wages of FOs at the regional airlines? Labor has been generally powerless to stop the race to the bottom that has affected wages throughout the industry. Many regional airlines start their FOs at a salary below $25,000 a year—because there are more qualified applicants than slots.

From an airline management’s view, why pay more when crew seats can be filled with acceptable bodies for less? Greed or good business? Why would a young person coming out of an aviation college or flight academy, with possibly $150,000 in debt, work as an indentured servant? It’s caused a number of potentially good pilots and their parents to question the wisdom of an airline career. How sad! Economic reality and gravity are the bane of aviation. Side effects include commuting pilots who can’t afford to live near their domiciles, divorces, personal and airline bankruptcy, and all manner of societal mayhem. Perhaps that’s where some congressional attention might be addressed. There are places where government re-regulation may have to play a stabilizing role.

More than 3,000 airline pilots are on furlough at this writing, including quite a number of FOs who either don’t have the requisite flight time or the ATP. Could they be legislated out of the cockpit if not grandfathered? If potential new hires are unfit just because they don’t meet an arbitrary hourly requirement, then how could these furloughed low-timers possibly be justified as safe? It’s a rhetorical question, and you know the answer.

Pilots should be hired and trained by solid criteria, not arbitrary numbers. There must be some apprenticeship time that’s only available in airline operations. It’s completely unrealistic to expect new pilots to get much “real-world experience” in icing, thunderstorms, and airline operations in crewed turbine equipment without being in an airliner. Few can afford that kind of training. The infamous aviation Catch 22 is badly compounded: We’d love to hire you but you don’t have enough experience; you can’t get the experience until you get hired.

If the airlines take economic training shortcuts that result in safety issues, the FAA already has authority to shut them down. The FAA has been tasked to come up with a response to Congress. We cannot give the Colgan families what was taken from them. However, we do owe them a real and logical solution, not a non sequitur.

As of October 1, the safety arm of AOPA is the AOPA Air Safety Institute.

AOPA Summit

AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg is a featured speaker at AOPA Aviation Summit 2010, November 11 through 13 in Long Beach, California. He will present “What Went Wrong?” on November 12. Visit the website for more information.