Maybe this will get the FAA moving. If the 50 lives lost in a commuter plane crash in Clarence weren’t enough to light a fire under the Federal Aviation Administration, perhaps the additional two lives lost in Saturday’s crash of a Boeing 777 in San Francisco will jolt it into action, fast-tracking the pilot training rules enacted after the 2009 crash of Flight 3407.
Both crashes occurred, at least in part, because the pilots allowed a dangerous reduction in airspeed. What is more, slow airspeed was also involved in three other major crashes in the last 11 years. That may not qualify as a trend, but it certainly does as an eyebrow raiser.
There were differences among these disasters. The crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence occurred after the plane slowed in wintry weather at an altitude of 2,280 feet. In responding, Capt. Marvin D. Renslow did the exact opposite of what he should have done, bringing on the crash instead of avoiding it. In San Francisco, Asiana Flight 214 was flying too slowly and much too low as it came in for a landing.
Still, observers see obvious similarities involving these two flights and the three others: pilots who may have come to rely too heavily on automated systems, either not developing the skills needed to override those systems in an emergency or allowing them to atrophy.
That’s why these new flight training rules need to be completed. The survivors of the victims of Flight 3407 fought long and hard to win passage of legislation dealing with pilot qualifications and training, safety management and pilot fatigue. They won that fight only to face chronic foot-dragging at the FAA and even legislative efforts to subvert the new law.
For its part, the FAA insists it is working diligently to write the rules on pilot qualifications and crew member training, and expects both to be completed this year, though as much as two years late.
But members of Families of Continental Flight 3407 fear that the airline industry, which has fought these rules, is having too much influence with the FAA. It’s not an unreasonable fear.
That, perhaps, is one reason that the Western New York congressional delegation and both U.S. senators wrote to FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta after Saturday’s crash, asking him to be sure the rules are completed this year. In addition, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he spoke directly to Huerta. Schumer said Huerta assured him “unequivocally” that the agency plans to implement the new safety regulations promptly. It is important for the delegation to keep up that pressure, given the resistance to these reforms.
Still, it is important to note that, generally speaking, air travel has never been safer than it is today. Much of that, no doubt, is due to the very automation that may be lurking behind the recent crashes. That’s just one of the reasons these new rules are so important: to counter the unintended consequences of new technology in increasingly sophisticated aircraft.
There is also room for additional automation. Ever since the 2002 crash that killed Sen. Paul D. Wellstone, D-Minn., and seven others – a crash blamed on inadequate airspeed – the National Transportation Safety Board has pushed for the installation of a low-airspeed alarm on all commercial aircraft. The effort has gone nowhere, but if it had been adopted, at least 289 people killed in crashes blamed on low airspeed since then might be alive today.