Safety Pilot: Searching for balance

Perfection at any price?

March 6, 2014

bruce landsbergOnly in Washington, D.C., would two seemingly intelligent parties devise a poison budget pill called sequestration. It was designed to be so bitter that no one would ever ingest it, and then the players would get serious about running the country. But they swallowed that sucker! After seeing that mindless solutions of simply cutting expenses across the board was stupid, Congress backed off and started spending money that doesn’t exist, in places where it shouldn’t be spent (again)! The justification often is safety, so let’s explore that.

We can no longer afford a system that has grown irrational as far as Part 91 operations are concerned. The FAA has many essential roles in the functioning of the national airspace system, aircraft certification, and safety efforts, but much of it has morphed into paperwork and payroll. In 1980 the FAA’s budget was $3.2 billion, or about $3,900 per pilot. In 2014 (projected) the budget was $15.9 billion and the cost per pilot had risen to about $26,000. Those are crude measurements and there may be other ratios that portray a better picture—but while the pilot population declined about 25 percent, the dollars increased more than six times. The infrastructure and capital costs don’t quite seem to support that level of increase.

I have many good friends in the FAA who want to do the right thing. They need that opportunity, so here are a few items perhaps the FAA leadership could address—in collaboration with the users:

• Review of the third class medical for Part 91 operations. The number of annual pilot-incapacitation accidents is down in the “noise level.” Typically, it’s about four fatal accidents per year and these are pilots with a medical certificate. Several friends, who are aviation docs, have openly admitted their inability to predict a catastrophic medical meltdown in flight. During the past 10 years, the Light Sport aircraft (LSA) experiment in medical self-certification has been a success by any measure. Lighter-than-air and glider pilots have always had this privilege, and guess what? No carnage. The medical certification process costs the FAA millions and the pilot community many millions more. It provides little safety benefit—especially to non-participants, who are the people we want to protect. In 35 out of 40 medical-incapacitation accidents in the past decade, only the pilot was killed—no passengers and no people on the ground. Time for a change?

• Part 23 needs to be overhauled to lower the cost of GA aircraft, both for initial construction and for retrofit. Modifications to old aircraft today must meet overly cumbersome specs even though the proposed modification might be a huge safety or operational improvement over the original equipment.

• The current GA business model for light aircraft doesn’t work. Cessna (Beech), Piper, and Cirrus are not selling many piston aircraft. There are many reasons why the costs are high, including product liability, expensive parts supplied by equally strapped manufacturers, and corporate overhead. It doesn’t help that the base product in too many cases hasn’t changed much in decades—while the price has quadrupled. That isn’t a successful retailing strategy. Time for a change?

• Stop the reissuance of flight instructor certificates. Why is it necessary to reissue flight instructor certificates every two years? There is no quibble with the requirement for a biennial CFI refresher, but a new plastic certificate is not needed to determine if a CFI has had a refresher course and is legal to teach. Handle it exactly as a flight review. A decade ago we estimated that thousands of hours of FAA time went into the paper (now plastic) chase with no measurable benefit to safety. Time for a change?

• Right size the number of towered airports. Let’s drop the charade that no towered airports are expendable. There are legitimate criteria that go beyond several air carrier flights per day, or that a location is GA only, or that it’s a contract or federally staffed tower. Activity, traffic mix, and complex airspace are starting points for a reasonable discussion. The majority of big airports don’t need staffing around the clock. Many places except the freight hubs could close up at midnight and reopen at 5 a.m. Time for a change?

This is only a thumbnail outline of things that could be addressed, and AOPA is looking at a much broader list. It’s time to stop the government’s quest for perfection at any price. Regulation, training, and aircraft construction should be proportional to the activity to enable—not inhibit—improvement. A slavish mindset that what we have today is somehow better is paradoxically blocking the innovative thinking that would allow the industry to grow. It can be much better, but the current constraining environment makes it really hard to get new ideas off the ground.

Bruce landsberg is president of the AOPA Foundation, which funds the work of the Air Safety Institute.

Web: www.airsafetyinstitute.org