FAA has maybe worse problem than the 787 Dreamliners
While CASA makes a goose out of the ATSB in this country by withholding information relevant to the Pel-Air crash, a tougher focus is falling on America's FAA over both the 787 debacle and pilot training standards.
Continental crash site Buffalo 2009, where it disowned poor flying by contract pilots
Are the standards of the US Federal Aviation Administration or FAA going downhill, and what needs to done if necessary to stop the rot?
These questions are being asked in the American media, which is more courageous than ours when it comes to airlines and safety and public administration, following the in-advance-of-release leaking of a review of the FAA by the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
The review faults the Federal Aviation Administration for not taking steps to encourage the big airlines “to consistently share safety information and best practices” with regional airlines that operate flights under contract for them.
That issue has been driven since the February 2009 crash of a Continental Airlines turbo-prop flight into a housing estate in Buffalo that was operated by a contract airline Colgan Air liveried and sold as a Continental Airlines flight.
This led to Congress resolving to set higher standards of experience for pilots permitted to fly any regular airlines services, and also to a Nick Xenophon inspired Senate committee inquiry into airline training standards in Australia that made a series of recommendations rejected by the government after the airlines and CASA insisted they were completely unnecessary.
The US federal polity was made of tougher stuff in its pursuit of better preparation of pilots for airline service, but has in effect been defied by the FAA as shown by the Transportation Department’s review.
Colgan Air has since ceased operations and Continental has been merged with United.
Among the other issues involved in the Continental crash was the strict legal responsibility of US carriers for the service delivered under their own brand by contractors like Colgan, including safety. The situation is comparable to that of Qantas branded flights being flown as Qantaslink services by various entities as jets or turbo-props and Virgin Australia’s regional turbo-prop services being flown by Skywest, which it is in the process of taking over subject to approvals, or by Alliance under contracts now expired.
There is however no controversy with such arrangements in this country, in that Qantas and Virgin Australia make unconditional commitments to the standards of these operators and the product delivered to their customers. What is notable in the US is the amount of push back that the major carriers exhibit when put on the spot over the failings or otherwise of those operators they entrust with flying their brand.
This is in turn important in this country when it comes to the pushing of ‘virtual airlines’ as an appropriate future strategy in which carriers become mostly a branding operation applied to the risks of airliner ownership and maintenance which are outsourced to entities no longer under the direct control of the airline using them. Australian regulation requires, at least on paper, the identical safety and standards outcomes from such outsourced services as from in house services.
This is already a ‘warm’ potato in Australia, but showing signs become a red hot potato as further moves to outsource skills and services to bases in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and let’s guess, Dubai, become more visible to the general public.
The tension over maintaining standards and controls over the things that matter to airline customers, as distinct from airline managers, such as safety, will rise the more airlines even hint at passing them off to the cheapest, or in PR speak, best bidder.
A year after the Colgan crash, then-Continental Airlines CEO Jeffrey Smisek angered victims’ families when he said it was the FAA’s responsibility to ensure Colgan’s pilots were properly trained, not Continental’s.
“We did not train those pilots. We did not maintain those aircraft. We did not operate the aircraft. But we expect them to be safe. We expect the Federal Aviation Administration to do its job,” Smisek told a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The father of a law student killed in the crash later cornered Smisek in the hallway outside the hearing room, complaining that his daughter bought her ticket from Continental, not Colgan.
Smisek is now the president and CEO of the holding company for United Airlines, which merged with Continental.
Can there be anything more nauseating than an airline CEO who won’t take responsibility for pilot training standards after a plane covered in its brand, and sold as its brand, crashes, killing everyone on board?
While Smisek’s stance may or may not withstand litigation in the US, the proposition that the quality of Virgin Australia’s regional turbo-prop pilots or Qantaslink’s 717 regional jet pilots was the responsibility of CASA not the airlines would be rejected outright by the Australian carriers, and furiously resisted at a public and political level in this country.
The role of the regulator here is to ensure that the airlines keep to those standards.
We need more serious querying of the public administration of air safety in this country along the lines of that which is asking whether the FAA was up to standard in its certification of the batteries in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and capable of making US contract airlines as safe as those they fly for.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.