Saturday, September 23, 2017

Nothing can substitute pilot training and experience to ensure safe skies

By Capt. Rick Dominguez, opinion contributor

Capt. Rick Dominguez is the executive administrator of Air Line Pilots Association, International.

Airline passengers and shippers expect and demand safe air transportation — and they’ve found it in U.S. air travel. Since the passage of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Extension Act of 2010, the United States has not had a single fatality due to an accident on a passenger airliner. But those who oppose this regulation will stop at nothing — including jeopardizing the traveling public —to weaken these standards in the upcoming FAA reauthorization.

For all of us, experience matters in our careers and families. Whether it’s your first day working in Washington after winning a seat in Congress or your first time as a parent dropping off your child at school, we’ve all felt the difference between doing something for the first time and going through an event we’ve already encountered.

The same applies for airline pilots— experience counts when operating complex equipment in a changing airspace. Airline pilots evaluate our environment and our aircraft using our senses. We learn to use the physical experience of being at the controls of the aircraft to ensure safe operations, not only for our current flight but for future trips. For airline pilots as well as members of Congress, experience is cumulative — It’s amassed over time, and there are no shortcuts or substitutes.

The data overwhelmingly support the importance of airline pilot experience. A recent RAND presentation on military pilots showed that those with the most experience performed at the highest levels. Conversely, the lack of experience threatens safety. For example, in its investigation of the Colgan Flight 3407 crash near Buffalo, N.Y., the National Transportation Safety Board noted the pilots’ lack of flight experience in winter conditions. Tragically, the first officer can be heard on the cockpit voice recorder lamenting her lack of winter flying experience just before the plane goes down.

When, at the direction of Congress, the FAA reviewed the Colgan accident and 30 others, it found that shortcomings in airline pilot qualification and training had played a role. The regulations that resulted improved the training pilots receive for, among other things, flying in adverse weather and icing, recognizing and recovering from upsets and stalls and mentoring other crewmembers. The rules also updated pilot certificate and type rating requirements.

In the 20 years prior to the congressional action, more than 1,100 passengers lost their lives in airline accidents in the United States. Since lawmakers acted, that number has been reduced to zero. While the pilot training and experience rules are not the only improvement that occurred during this time, the new set of regulations was by far the most comprehensive.

Despite the fact that well-trained and experienced pilots save lives, some critics of this valuable training are working to overturn these rules in the FAA reauthorization. The Regional Airline Association has accused the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l, of distorting the facts about what they know all too well — experience and training matters.

Experience also matters in how members of Congress, regulators, and passengers evaluate their arguments. The public will decide who is credible, but when Capt. Tim Canoll, who is ALPA’s president and a 27-year airline pilot with thousands of hours of commercial and military flight experience including landing F/A-18 Hornets on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, speaks out on aviation safety, his word carries serious weight when compared to those calling to rollback safety.

The record of U.S. passenger airline fatalities since these safety rules were put in place speaks for itself. Airline pilots will not relent in our drive to block any effort to weaken the rules that mean well-trained and experienced pilots will continue to be part of the safest era in history for U.S. airlines.

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