GAO report highlights FAA oversight role

November 18, 2011

A new Government Accountability Office report on initial pilot training recommends that the FAA develop ways to measure how well it performs oversight and inspection of flight training institutions and examiners, and develop a better understanding of the “nature and scope” of its discretionary inspections of flight instructors.

The 70-page report, conducted at the behest of Congress, examined the role initial pilot training and education may have played in pilot performance. The report reviewed the various kinds of domestic flight schools, and compared training methods and opportunities to those in other countries.

The report, released Nov. 15, was critical of the FAA for not adequately monitoring and tracking inspection activity, in part because of its “inability to aggregate inspection data from the local district offices” that carry out the inspections. That shortcoming made it difficult to ensure that safety standards were being met, the GAO said.

The report noted that to what extent the FAA carried out “optional” inspections of individual flight instructors was unclear, as were the reasons for them.

AOPA provided the GAO with data for the study, which was partially cited in the report’s extensive discussion of the declining U.S. pilot population and AOPA’s efforts to reverse the trend of high student pilot dropout rates. The GAO report noted the association’s concern that the dropout rate could be a factor in the supply of future pilots.

AOPA, during participation in other initiatives that looked into training issues, such as the FAA’s First Officer Qualification Aviation Rulemaking Committee, has consistently emphasized that primary flight training is undertaken not just by future airline pilots, but by those who plan to fly for recreational and personal reasons, and for compensation as commercial pilots, and should not become overly burdensome to general aviation pilots. Airline must pilots go on to take training specific for the type of air carrier operation for which they were hired.

“Possession of a commercial pilot certificate does not qualify a pilot to fly as a flight officer at an airline, it is simply the minimum certificate level required to interview for an airline job,” said Kristine Hartzell, AOPA manager of regulatory affairs. “Furthermore, ‘commercial pilot’ does not mean ‘airline pilot.’ A commercial pilot certificate is required for a great number of GA pilot jobs. Airline pilots must undergo intensive training on the specific aircraft type and the operations specifications under which the airline is approved and they must pass FAA-approved company checks (which include their own written, oral, simulator and line checks) prior to being fully qualified as an airline pilot.”

The report cited industry worries that recent airline safety legislation requiring higher certification for airline new-hires would also contribute to a future pilot shortage.

“Aviation stakeholders have voiced significant concerns that requiring first officers for regional airlines to possess an airline transport pilot certificate will likely result in the inability to fill some positions due to the lack of qualified pilots,” it said.

Despite its analysis of training and testing standards, the report declined to issue recommendation on the area “because FAA has initiated some efforts and has plans for other efforts to address pilot training issues. For example, FAA plans to establish a government and industry working group during fiscal year 2012 to address issues related to pilot certification testing standards and training.” AOPA is participating on this committee.

The GAO described the FAA’s oversight of “key functions” for initial training as “reasonably sound,” but expressed concern about the consistency of oversight--which it said made a case for better controls.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.