Sen. Schumer sends a Letter to the FAA re Colgan 3407, but There is More that He Could Do

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ARTICLE: Schumer scolds FAA for lagging on air safety in Flight 3407 aftermath

In response to a recent article in The Buffalo News, the senior Senator from New York wrote a letter to the FAA Administrator castigating his agency for not fully heeding the NTSB recommendations on the tragic 2009 Colgan 3407 crash. Senator Schumer specifically chided the FAA for inadequate training of the inspectors assigned to expanding carriers. Such oversight is one of the functions of the Senator, among others.

The 2010 NTSB report on this crash in analyzed factors which contributed to this tragedy. Among those subjects were crew monitoring failures, pilot professionalism, remedial training, training records, airspeed selection procedures, stall training, use of PEDs in the cockpit, SAFOs and weather information provided by the FAA (cover page).

FAA oversight and pilot fatigue were also mentioned by the NTSB in their review of Colgan 3407. Those, however, are two matters for which the Congress has legislative powers which could address these factors directly.

The training and selection of inspectors are critical to achieving the sort of oversight called for by the NTSB and reiterated in the Senator’s letter. Inspector training and selection are functions of Congressional budgets and OPM policies. These two topics provide good remedial actions which may address the Colgan causes.

The FAA is authorized, by its legislated budget, to spend specific dollar amounts on training for, among many classes of FAA personnel, controllers, airports staff and field inspectors. The Administrator has some discretion to move some funds among accounts, but sequestration further stressed that ability to get training to those who need the instruction.

If the Senator believes that the FAA inspectors are poorly trained, he should aggressively pursue additional training dollars for the FAA’s 2014 budget.

There is a deeper point here that neither the NTSB nor Sen. Schumer mentioned. The Office of Personnel Management establishes criteria by which job descriptions are assessed in determining pay grades. The OPM classification favors hard, objective numbers. Consequently the FAA field personnel who receive the highest GS numbers (i.e. the highest pay grades) are those jobs assigned to regulate the airline with the most airplanes. Small (even expanding) regional carriers justify, under the OPM standards, lower GS ratings and consequently they are more likely to be filled with individuals with less training, judgment and experience.

If the Senator wants the inspection of expanding regional carriers to be performed by more senior FAA staff, he needs to write a letter to OPM or change their statute to allow experienced, trained staff to be assigned without regard to the number of airplanes on the certificate.

A major finding of the NTSB was that the crew was fatigued. The FAA has promulgated its most complex, detailed regulations designed to assure that the flight crew is able to fly. Those rules regulate the rest time given to the captains and first officers AFTER they report to duty.

The Colgan facts suggest that the pilots here were tired because of their commutes to work. That’s technically beyond the FAA rules; a pilot reports for duty and in so doing, presents herself or himself as fit for duty. It is almost impossible, under the current rules, for the employer to challenge that self-assessment.

If the Senator really wants to take action which will reduce the likelihood a tired pilot contributes to an accident because of fatigue, he could pass legislation expanding the FAA’s jurisdiction to clearly include such off-duty conduct.

Senator Schumer wrote a letter to the FAA instructing the Administrator to improve inspector training. Unfortunately, the Congressionally legislated budget did not provide adequate funds to meet the Senator’s admonition.

The senior Senator from New York could initiate legislation that would:

  • Increase the funding for training for inspectors,
  • Instruct the OPM to create criteria which would increase the stature of inspectors’ surveilling small, but expanding airlines and
  • Expand the FAA’s jurisdiction to regulate pilot readiness to report for duty for the period before work begins.

Any one or all of these would be constructive actions in response to the lessons of Colgan 3407.

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