WASHINGTON – When government investigators completed their report on the 2009 crash of Colgan Air’s Continental Connection Flight 3407, they recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration boost its safety inspections of fast-growing airlines.
But three years after the National Transportation Safety Board completed that report, the FAA still has not fully heeded that recommendation.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., highlighted that fact in a letter Thursday to the head of the FAA, saying it’s imperative that the agency make sure its airline inspectors are qualified – which is just what the safety board recommended in its final report on the 2009 Colgan crash in Clarence Center that claimed 50 lives.
Schumer said he raised the issue with FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta because of a Buffalo News article Sunday in which a former Colgan executive said FAA officials warned the airline about safety problems six months before the crash but did little to follow up on those concerns.
“I was saddened and angered by the Buffalo News report that revealed there were serious red flags regarding Colgan Air’s safety before the Flight 3407 crash, and was alarmed to discover that the FAA still has not satisfied the NTSB that their safety inspectors have the proper training or knowledge needed to work on the flights to which they are assigned,” Schumer said.
The safety board noted in its 2010 report that Colgan’s chief FAA inspector had not been qualified to inspect the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, a plane that Colgan had added to its fleet in 2008 – and the model that crashed in Clarence Center the next year.
For that reason, the safety board recommended that the FAA make sure its inspectors are adequately trained, that inspector staffing be increased when necessary and that qualified inspectors be moved around the country as needed.
Three years after making those recommendations, though, the NTSB says the FAA has not yet done enough.
“Although we recognize the FAA’s efforts to improve the management systems that it uses to prioritize oversight activities, we remain concerned,” the NTSB said in a Feb. 11 response to Huerta.
That’s because the FAA appears to be singling out some airlines over others for oversight and telling its inspectors to pay attention to “particular aspects of a carrier’s current situation,” rather than making sure the agency’s primary operations inspectors, or POIs, are qualified and provided with the resources they need.
“Again, we emphasize that, in the Colgan Flight 3407 accident, the POI had limited experience in the new equipment that Colgan was rapidly adding, and for which crews needed to be qualified,” the NTSB said in that February letter to the FAA. “Although the FAA had a number of other inspectors already on its staff who were experienced with and qualified in the Q400, FAA management neither recognized the need of Colgan’s POI for additional resources, nor did it reassign available inspectors to Colgan during the transition to the new equipment.”
Huerta told the NTSB last year the FAA was working to boost inspections of airlines that are experiencing rapid growth and/or increasing complexity of operations, or have experienced safety incidents or other signs that they may be operating in some risk.
But Schumer indicated that wasn’t good enough. “The revelations stemming from this recent Buffalo News report raise important questions about how the FAA and the regional airline industry are addressing a set of recommendations made by the NTSB,” as well as the Department of Transportation’s inspector general, Schumer wrote to Huerta. “In particular, the news report provides shocking testimony from a former Colgan official that the cost-cutting ways of regional airlines lead to the hiring of inexperienced pilots and lackluster training programs.”
In the letter, Schumer asked Huerta to explain how the FAA plans to comply with that NTSB recommendation that it bolster training for its inspectors.
In addition, Schumer noted that in January, the DOT inspector general found that the FAA had yet to take sufficient steps to make sure that airlines and FAA inspectors are prepared to comply with a new set of pilot qualifications and training requirements set to take effect later this year.
“How is the FAA currently working with the regional airline industry to prepare for the new pilot training requirements?” Schumer asked Huerta. “Do you believe the industry will be ready to undertake and fulfill the new requirements by the proposed implementation date later this year?”
Asked about Schumer’s request, the FAA said in a statement that it is working with airlines regarding a pending requirement that all commercial pilots have an air transport pilot, or ATP, certificate, which currently requires 1,500 hours of flight time.
“Based on ongoing dialogue with industry, the FAA knows that nearly half of the pilots who will need an ATP certificate were qualified as of October 2012,” the FAA said. “Most carriers are aware of the self-enactment date of the regulation and began taking steps early enough to meet the Aug. 1, 2013, deadline.”
Schumer was a key force behind passage of the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, the law enacted at the behest of the Families of Continental Flight 3407 in 2010.
That law requires the FAA to develop those new pilot experience and training rules.