By Joan Lowy
WASHINGTON — Faced with substantial industry opposition, federal regulators are struggling to implement a sweeping aviation safety law enacted after the last fatal U.S. airline crash nearly four years ago, according to a report by a government watchdog.
The Federal Aviation Administration is experiencing lengthy delays in putting in place rules required by the law to increase the amount of experience necessary to be an airline pilot, provide more realistic pilot training and create a program where experienced captains mentor less experienced first officers, according to the report by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General. The report was obtained by The Associated Press.
The FAA is also running into problems creating a new, centralized electronic database that airlines can check prior to hiring pilots, the report said. The database is supposed to include pilots’ performance on past tests of flying skills.
In each case, the agency has run into significant opposition from the airline industry, the report said.
Congress passed the law a year and a half after the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed all 49 people aboard and a man on the ground. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the accident highlighted weaknesses in pilot training, tiring work schedules, lengthy commutes and relatively low experience levels for pilots at some regional carriers.
The accident was due to an incorrect response by the flight’s captain to two key safety systems, causing an aerodynamic stall that sent the plane plummeting into a house below, the NTSB investigation concluded.
Driven by the accident and the new safety law, the FAA substantially revised its rules governing pilot work schedules to better ensure pilots are rested when they fly. It was the first modification of the rules since 1985 and “a significant achievement” for the FAA, the report said.
The inspector general’s report details how FAA has missed deadlines and run into complications trying to issue regulations necessary to implement key portions of the law.
For example, the FAA is behind schedule on rules to substantially increase the experience required to become an airline pilot from the current 250 flight hours to 1,500 flight hours. The agency currently estimates it will issue the rules in August, a year after the deadline set in the law. Airlines, worried they won’t be able to find enough qualified new pilots, oppose the increase, arguing that a pilot’s quality and type of flying should be weighed more heavily than the number of flight hours.