U.S. Dept. of Transportation report criticizes FAA

New questions have surfaced regarding the adequacy of the Federal Aviation Administration’s pilot training and performance policies. NBC Bay Area has publicized a December 2011 report from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, in which the FAA is criticized for its failure to properly monitor air safety.

NBC’s report contends that the situation may be more troubling than the public realizes. After combing through 30 years’ worth of reports covering from near mid-air collisions, or NMACs, to ground incidents, investigative reporters discovered that, since 2000, there have been over 1,000 incidents in the Bay Area alone.

Ken Edwards, a commercial pilot, recounted one such incident. Several years ago, Edwards was flying over South Florida into the setting sun, causing severe visibility problems. “It was the glare,” he told NBC. “We simply couldn’t see anything outside, but we were being told very loudly by this computer-generated voice that we were about to collide with another air craft.” Edwards was referring to the Traffic Collision Avoidance System build into commercial cockpits. “It was scary,” he continued. “There’s a few seconds where if you blink, you miss it. It happens that quickly.”

FAA manager-turned-whistleblower Gabe Bruno blames the institutional culture within the administration, which he described as “one of ‘let’s keep things quiet, don’t rock the boat, we don’t want to have any problems on our watch.” He explained to NBC that, as a result, near-miss incidents are typically under-reported by the FAA. “There are more of these situations that take place than the public has an awareness of,” he said.

The report gave further examples of the FAA’s regulatory missteps. There are, evidently, no policies or procedures in place to prevent two pilots in remedial training from being paired together on the same commercial flight. New pilots can be paired with other inexperienced or immature peers, potentially leading to a dangerous, even life-threatening situation: “[I]f you’re cutting corners when you first become a pilot because the people you’re flying with are cutting corners, chances are you’re going to do the same thing.”

Due in part to the Inspector General’s report, the issue is expected to be addressed by Congress in the near future.

The FAA responded to these concerns by suggesting that the information cited by the Inspector General and in the media painted an incomplete, misleading picture of what, according to the FAA, is a very safe civil and commercial aviation system. The FAA claims that their data-gathering and analytical techniques, enhanced by a shift in industry culture, have culminated in a proactive approach to safety. By instituting such changes as a “non-punitive error reporting system” in air traffic control facilities, the FAA says it has encouraged pilots, traffic controllers, flight attendants, and dispatchers to come forward with important information.

NBC’s full reports can be found here and here.

It should be said that airline safety has improved markedly over the years. When an accident does occur, the industry is generally responsive to the recommendations and directives of the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and similar agencies overseas. Perhaps the most recent example was the concern over cracks found in components inside the wing of Airbus’s A380. In that case, Airbus, airlines, and European regulatory agencies presented a more or less united front in investigating the problem.

However, the air travel industry is not yet free from certain unsafe practices. For example, concerns remain over the question of the affect of fatigue on the performance of pilots and air traffic controllers, and what needs to be done to address it.