With the loss of hundreds of lives in the recent Caspian Airlines 7908, Air France 447, Yememia Airways, and Colgan Air 3407 accidents, 2009 is shaping up to be one of the worst years in decades for aviation safety. These tragedies are prompting the industry, insurers, regulators, and lawmakers to take a hard look at aviation safety issues. While travelers and regulators follow crash investigations closely, the stakes around ensuring safe and reliable air travel are high, not only for airlines and aerospace manufacturers, but a host of dependent stakeholders, including the international travel and hospitality sector, and all nations that rely heavily on tourism to fuel their economies.
In this Q&A, Pillsbury partners Kenneth Quinn, General Counsel of the Flight Safety Foundation and a former chief counsel at the FAA, and Jennifer Trock, who advise airlines, airport authorities and others on a full range of regulatory issues, including aviation safety, discuss whether the recent slew of high-profile crashes and accidents may prompt shifts in international regulations governing air safety.
Q. Air travel has long been perceived as safe, particularly in the U.S. Yet, there have been a significant number of crashes recently. Do we know what may account for the increase in accidents? What questions are these regional and international crashes prompting?
Quinn: Air travel remains one of the safest forms of transportation. For most people flying in or to developed countries, the odds of being in a fatal accident are greater than 1 in 13 million. You're a lot safer flying than driving home from work on the highway. In most years in the U.S., over 40,000 people will die on the roads. But these latest crashes are disturbing.
The Colgan crash near Buffalo underscores what many of us knew, which is that regional flying doesn't have the same safety track record as the major airlines, that pilot experience and access to training records can be mixed, and that the proverbial "one level of safety" for aviation is more myth than reality. The international crashes underscore that oversight regimes can lack resources and expertise, that human error remains the main cause of crashes, and that the safety record in some regions of the world is far worse, with older aircraft being flown by inexperienced flight crews.
New aircraft have all sorts of impressive technologies installed for better navigation, collision avoidance and other safeguards, many of which were spurred by crash investigations' findings. But churning out new, state-of-the-art planes, by itself, does not make for safer skies, particularly as older aircraft are simply sold to other operators and keep flying. Pilots and passengers from all nations are only as safe as the "weakest link" in the interconnected global aviation system. The net rise of middle class populations around the world is increasing demand for air travel, making it even more urgent to stay ahead of the curve and consistently work to raise safety standards.
Q. Many nations, including the U.S., require foreign airlines to have established safety standards and protocols in place as a condition of serving their markets. Do these criteria need to be tightened, or more thoroughly enforced?
Quinn: While overall safety standards are generally clear and well-defined, the larger issue is how such standards are applied – a great deal of inconsistency exists, even between highly established regimes such as the U.S. and European Union (EU). For example, the European Commission takes a "blacklist" approach that bars certain carriers from EU airspace if they are deemed unsafe, regardless of whether they have any demonstrated history of accidents while carrying EU passengers. Other nations, including the U.S., use an internationally recognized audit system of a country's compliance with proper standards and recommended practices agreed upon through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which reviews policies, regulations, airworthiness standards, oversight resources, and safety performance when evaluating the relative safety of other countries' oversight.
Rather than just ban airlines from their airspace — which just makes these airlines worse off economically — I'd rather these wealthier countries, including the U.S., use more of a carrot than a stick, and help them by providing technical expertise and resources. Major philosophical differences between jurisdictions do not necessarily lead to improved air travel safety — often it just pushes the problem on to someone else's jurisdiction.
Q. Following U.S. Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger's successful landing of a plane in the Hudson River without any casualties after a flock of birds knocked out the plane's engines, Sullenberger testified before Congress that he believed too few pilots were adequately trained to handle emergency situations. Is this issue being addressed by regulators?
Quinn: Sullenberger's masterful water landing in January and then the loss of all passengers aboard the Colgan flight in February, which the NTSB determined occurred because the captain of the commuter plane had never been trained on how to respond to the emergency that led to the airplane's fatal descent, has catapulted the issues of pilot training and ‘fatigue management" to the top of the FAA's safety list.
My own view is that we've long known about the problems of fatigue in a whole variety of industries, including maritime, trucking, rail, transit, and the medical profession, but we are not addressing these issues head on. We've all experienced fatigue to one degree or another that we knew affected our performance. Yet, when we're not "on top of our game," normally it does not have catastrophic consequences. But when you're in an aluminum and composite tube at 35,000 feet going 550 mph, it can be a huge problem. Fatigue negatively affects physical and cognitive functioning, as well as mood, which can negatively impact a crew's response time, decision making, and crew coordination.
While the FAA's fast-tracking of new rules governing rest and ongoing discussions with the industry regarding improved emergency training requirements should help improve air travel safety, we are reaching the limits of what man and machine in the cockpit can achieve. We've got to put aside management's strong desire for greater productivity and labor's desire for more free time, and effectively address these human factors issues. It's these more profound, yet subtle issues that pose greater threats.
Q. How could pilots bear more responsibility for safety under retooled safety regulations?
Trock: While pilots have historically resisted anti-fatigue measures that may intrude into their personal lives and privacy in the past, such as forcing them to pay for mandated hotel stays before flights, regulators are already revisiting this issue with pilots groups, safety advocates and the carriers.
Crashes prompt questions of whether existing fatigue rules adequately reflect pilots' lives today. Some believe that in addition to full flight schedules, pilots have to cope with realities such as increasingly long work commutes that, over time, could cause early fatigue and erode concentration — potentially dangerous if familiar automated systems fail, requiring action in seconds.
The FAA will also need to work within privacy laws to retool rules on pilots' training records, but we expect this area to undergo changes as well. The pilots' training records and results are drawing more scrutiny, as is the question of how airlines and authorities can help ensure pilots' accurate and complete records are available to their employers.
Under the current system, pilots' records are filed with the FAA over the course of their career, but to review these records, hiring airlines must retrieve their own copies from the pilot's previous employer. Sometimes these files are incomplete, outdated, or altogether missing — such as when a previous employer is dissolved via bankruptcy or merger. Reform proposals include requiring carriers to archive pilots' records for longer periods of time, or requiring the FAA to release pilot training records to hiring carriers.
Q. With heightened safety awareness today, what are regulators and aviation businesses doing to uncover potential safety risks before accidents occur?
Trock: Regulators need to encourage airlines' voluntary safety improvements. For example, the FAA allows aviation businesses who voluntarily disclose safety issues and concerns — in a specified, timely fashion — a certain degree of amnesty from penalties. Similar to how whistleblower programs work at manufacturing facilities under OSHA safety requirements, the FAA believes that pilots, mechanics and others closest to aircraft and flight operations are in the best position to spot warning signs and relay information to authorities if incentives exist for them to do so. Their disclosures can lead to safety improvements, and give the FAA data to study independently to assess potential risks.
Authorities want to achieve a balance between enforcing the rules and motivating continuous self-improvement from industry. An issue that could affect this balance significantly is the EU's interest in charging aviation personnel and businesses figuring into accident reports with criminal acts. The prospect of criminal charges would almost certainly chill voluntary disclosures if safety issues are uncovered, as pilots, ground crew, and their airline employers would not want anything they disclosed to surface against them in future criminal proceedings.
Q. How is the current recession, or longer-term business challenges, hurting airlines' safety investments?
Quinn: Airlines certainly invest in safety, but these amounts vary, in large part because regardless of flight demand and where people want to travel, all carriers are constrained by where they can legally fly. Aviation is a very unique industry in that it's international in scope, but has to function within restrictive, compartmented legal frameworks in the U.S. and other jurisdictions, which are rooted in political, national security, and sovereignty concerns. The U.S., for example, has laws preventing foreign "control" of domestic airlines and many countries forbid overseas airlines from flying domestic routes within their borders, in an effort to shield their native carriers.
One major result of this complex regulatory landscape is that many countries treat airlines as national assets with obligations to provide service to remote areas, and politicize their management – which helps explain why there are more than 160 carriers with varying routes, resources, and safety records. In theory, opening up markets to cross-border access, investment, and wider competition could lead to economies of scale, consolidation, and free more capital for safety, efficiency, and other performance concerns, but this simply goes against how air travel is regulated today.
Trock: Apart from revisiting foreign ownership controls, another idea gaining interest is whether nations should "pool" their aviation safety resources regionally, instead of relying on disparate safety personnel and systems between lines on a political map, which are very expensive when you consider training, construction and maintenance needs.
Under a landmark 1944 international aviation treaty known as the Chicago Convention, which still guides the industry and governments today, individual nations have exclusive responsibility for establishing their air safety infrastructures and oversight agencies. This strategy was arguably more feasible at the time, when there were fewer nations, fewer carriers and a tiny fraction of today's flights.
Today, many point to potential safety and cost advantages that adjacent countries in Central America, or East Africa, for example, could realize if they were able to coordinate their safety personnel and technology investments into regional, not national, systems. The idea touches long-held sovereignty sensitivities, but might gain momentum with compromise approaches. For example, provisions might allow regional safety collaboration but also affirm nations' right to maintain their own FAA-equivalent-type agencies to manage domestic regulations.
Q. What should the aviation industry watch for in the coming months when it comes to safety requirements?
Trock: Aviation is an industry uniquely attuned to safety, but it is still a business. Industry leaders, pilot groups, and regulators will likely take a rebalancing approach that tries to close potential safety gaps without making flying economically unsustainable. While changes in records, fatigue, and testing rules will be far reaching, small regional carriers will be particularly affected, given their sensitivity to overhead costs. Meanwhile, international carriers have a lot at stake where different countries could pursue criminal investigations after accidents, potentially affecting airlines' personnel and local offices.
Quinn: Safety issues may become the tipping point for revamping a lot of long-held policies impeding deeper industry cooperation. This could result in more uniform safety inspections, fostering investment in emerging markets and widening access to critical safety resources. For carriers, airports and others, there could be opportunities to realize both expanded business and safety achievements.