It is rare that the Wall Street Journal publishes two stories on an aviation safety initiative by an airline on one day. Both included the byline of its lead aviation writer, Andy Pasztor, who is one of the best journalists on this subject. To add to the anomaly, the tone of all these reports is positive. Finally, there is no mention of the new regulatory regime, which most likely was the catalyst for this self-imposed remedial action by the carrier. More pointedly, one of the quotes by an expert inexplicably incorrectly casts the relationship between the regulator and the regulated.
What did the Journal report? That United Airlines has taken the unusual step of requiring that all of its pilots return for added (not recurrent) training. This three month effort is named LEAP and was developed by United and the ALPA council for the carrier. In classrooms, the cockpit crews will reinforce their communication skills so that the PIC and SIC are on the same page, properly allocate their attentions and manage the automation systems between them. The article notes that:
“At the same time, increasing reliance on cockpit automation can lead to pilot inattention or confusion in the event of an emergency. Undue dependence on computers can degrade a pilot’s manual flying skills. For years, despite the high degree of safety in the U.S. airline industry, aviation regulators have struggled with the best way to foster greater pilot professionalism across the industry.”
Beyond this learning exercise, United will improve their “hiring patterns, fleet adjustments, cockpit automation and other changes facing the industry.”
While not expressly noted, this preventative program is most likely derived from the data and lessons of Safety Management Systems. The essence of this new approach to aviation safety is to collect all relevant data, analyze those numbers, look for trends and then JOINTLY (FAA and airline) define proactive solutions. This new method of regulating safety was described a year ago when this piloting deficiency was announced a year ago.
That atmosphere of cooperation does not fit well with this quote from one of the experts quoted by Pasztor:
“We’re the first in the industry to take this on with a comprehensive strategy,” he said. “We’re not waiting for the regulators to tell us what to do.”
Perhaps this comment belies the assumption that UA’s LEAP was a product of SMS. In that United participates in SMS and the benefits which this collaborative process conveys, the expert may have been unaware of the predicate solution development of that regulatory regime. The comment that UA is “not waiting” for an FAA regulation is contrary to the philosophy, policies, practices and procedures of SMS; for that process involves UA, ALPA and the FAA in designing an appropriate response, not to write new regulations.
It is unfortunate the WSJ reporter did not include the value of SMS in the proactive solution to this identified potential safety problem. In recognizing UA and ALPA as part of the solution, it would have been appropriate to tell the public about the FAA’s involvement (assuming that SMS was indeed the predicate to pilot problem and a source of LEAP’s remediation). This cooperative tactic will continue to enhance safety in the future and the public should be aware of its contribution to their safety.