Monday, October 22, 2012

Airline Safety: No News Is Good News—Or Is It?


It has been almost four years since the last fatal commercial airline accident in the U. S.:  the crash of Flight 3407 in February 2009, in which pilot and copilot errors combined to send the plane into a house in Clarence Center, N. Y., killing fifty people.  Of course, that could change overnight, but for the moment we can be grateful that the airline safety record looks so good.  However, there’s a fly in this otherwise sweet-smelling ointment:  it turns out that crashes stimulate the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) more than anything else to improve safety measures such as pilot training and work rules.  And the lack of such stimulus has allowed the FAA to drag out some important pilot-training improvements for over a decade.

In the early years of flying, many accidents were due to mechanical failures, and this remained true at least until the 1980s.  Cargo doors, flammable cargo, and of course bombs (before airport security was beefed up) were responsible for many fatalities.  But with the advent of airport security measures and technical improvements in both airframe construction and restrictions on the types of cargo carried, most of the non-human causes of commercial crashes have been adequately dealt with.  What remains, as the story of Flight 3407 tells us, is the human factor.

Because fatigue seemed to play a big role in the Flight 3407 accident, the FAA began to revise rules on pilot work schedules to prevent the kind of overscheduling that pilot Marvin Renslow and 24-year-old copilot Rebecca Shaw experienced before their fatal accident in 2009.  Shaw had joined the flight after an all-night commute from Seattle, and at the time it was a common thing for pilots to snooze in airport waiting rooms at odd moments rather than checking into a hotel with the accompanying delays.

But only in 2011 were the new work-schedule rules implemented, and then only for planes carrying paying passengers.  Cargo flights are still immune from the new rules, which seems to imply that while we want to protect paying customers, pilots and hardware are expendable.

Regulation is a sparring match between an industry that sees restrictions on how they can use their paid staff in dollars-and-cents terms, and a government agency that is beholden to Congress and the people at large to ensure that airline travel is “safe.”  Of course, “safe” can only be approached, not achieved, and therein lies the difficulty.  The practical outcome is that things slide along, with the FAA taking years to solicit industry input and modify the proposed rules, until an accident prods Congress to come down hard on the agency with a mandate for improved rules that will keep the next horse from getting out of the barn after the present one has escaped.

That is perhaps a cynical view of the process, but it appears to cover the facts.  I have not looked at the proposed new rules, but as I recommended in May 2009 when the National Transportation Safety Board issued its conclusions on the causes of the Flight 3407 crash, we can learn a lot from near-accidents without having to go through the agony of a real one.

A recent news report on the issue of new FAA regulations says that voluntary data-gathering has been emphasized over one-size-fits-all obligatory rules.  And perhaps that is one reason that we’ve had such a long spell without commercial-airline fatalities.  The Air Line Pilots’ Association (ALPA) holds an annual Air Safety Forum, and the September 2012 online issue of the Air Line Pilot Magazine describes topics at the four-day forum such as stall recovery, the new pilot training rules proposed by the FAA, and airport safety issues.  Computerized records of voluntary safety-issue reporting make it easier than ever for pilots to learn from the mistakes of their colleagues.  Under the old cop-and-bad-guy model, airlines were reluctant to publicize pilot errors because of fears that they would get in trouble with the FAA, and consequently, knowledge about errors that could have turned into major disasters stayed in the cockpit.  Under the new atmosphere of collaboration, however, the FAA encourages such sharing of experience, with the result that pilots are more prepared than ever to avoid or deal with dangerous situations that other pilots have encountered.

This is one more example of a general principle: that we often learn more from technical mistakes and errors than we do from uneventful success.  This was something Chesley Sullenberger put into practice on January 15, 2009, when some geese killed all the engines of his Airbus A320 on his descent to New York City.  Sullenberger and his co-pilot successfully ditched the plane in the Hudson River and everyone was safely rescued.  It turned out that Sullenberger had served the NTSB as an accident investigator and was active in safety committees for the ALPA.  A good man constantly improving his safety skills got a big chance to put them into action, and he did.

What Sullenberger did that day, we would hope that the entire industry does all the time:  learn from previous errors, communicate them widely, and use that knowledge to prevent future incidents.  So far, it seems to be working.  It doesn’t make headlines, and it doesn’t stir Congress to action, but the pragmatic engineering criterion “does it work?” seems to be met here.  Let’s hope that the new record of time without a fatal commercial crash keeps getting longer each day.

Sources:  The Associated Press carried Joan Lowy’s article on airline pilot rule making, which was titled “No crashes, so new safety rules stall” in the Austin American-Statesman for Oct. 21, 2012.  I consulted the September 2012 online edition of the Air Line Pilot Magazine at http://www.alpa.org/publications/Air_Line_Pilot_September_2012/Air_Line_Pilot_September_2012.html#06 and the Wikipedia article on Chesley Sullenberger.  My blogs on Flight 3407 appeared on Feb. 16 and May 18, 2009.

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