Going Direct: Uh Oh. Congress Is Trying To Improve Flight Training

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In a terrific article in AvWeb this morning, Kate O’Connor reported that the House of Representatives Transportation Committee has initiated a General Accounting Office (GAO) audit of the FAA’s training requirements for airline pilots. 

I do not know where to begin on this, but let’s gingerly step in right here. 

Since the Colgan crash in 2009 of a Q400 that killed 50 people just outside Buffalo, New York, there has been one fatality on a U.S. based airliner. One. If you didn’t catch that number, again, it’s one, and that was the death of a woman on a Southwest Airlines flight after the left engine exploded and breached the cabin. As you might remember, the remarkable flying of the crew, using their accumulated skill, much of which was amassed while doing their mandated FAA training, proceeded to heroically bring the disabled aircraft in for a safe landing. 

So to recap, over the past 11 years and or so, during which U.S.-based airlines have flown nearly 10 billion passengers, there has been one fatality. Statistically you stand as good a chance of getting hit by a meteorite as dying on a U.S. airliner.

The House strangely enough has pointed to two accidents involving the 737 Max,  one in Ethiopia and the other in Indonesia, to justify the the audit…for the audit of FAA training regulations! You know, the ones that are so far from being broken we don’t have the language to describe how successful they are. The ones in the United States and not in Ethiopia or Indonesia. Does the FAA have some sway in how manufacturers, and to be clear, we’re talking about Boeing here, puts together its training packages for foreign airlines? It does, but it’s limited. The places with the ability to really implement changes are countries like, I don’t know, Ethiopia and Indonesia.

So, what precisely is the House hoping to fix? Whose problem? And how do they imagine an audit might fix this problem? To say the move is baffling is to be kind. 

Also, let’s be clear, the House knows as much about flight training as they do about Etruscan art. That is, they know nothing or, to be fair, next to nothing about it. The training airline pilots get in the United States is top-notch, and it is only getting better. I’ve been following the experiences of one pilot as she goes through her initial training for a major airline, and I am daily amazed at the depth and breadth of the training experience. All of us aviators should be proud of what our airlines have collectively achieved. 

So, back to the House and its GAO audit of the FAA’s training. I get it that there’s concern about the training that Boeing in my view recklessly launched worldwide for pilots of the 737 Max, including a syllabus that omitted mention of the very system pilots most needed to understand in order stave off disaster, an omission that was followed by two such disasters. 

Which makes clear that this issue, the one the House says it’s trying to solve, is about Boeing and not U.S. airlines or their pilots. Indeed, the airlines and the pilots unions are hopping mad at Boeing for the whole affair, and filing billion-dollar lawsuits reflecting that anger. Is the FAA at fault in this process, too? Perhaps, but only insofar as it trusted Boeing to be straight with it about the training demands of a new model of airplane. And Boeing, according to dozens of reports, was anything but transparent with how training should best be implemented. 

So thanks to the House action by far the biggest threat to the safety of U.S. airline training programs is… you guessed it, the House itself, or at least the very GAO audit the House has initiated. The truth is, when something ain’t broke, you might want to keep an eye on it, but by all means, please, please don’t try to fix it, especially if you have no idea how it works, and the House Transportation Committee couldn’t be any more lost on this debacle of a crusade.

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