FAA Fails To Monitor Pilot Performance

Feds say the FAA should do more to keep you safe in the skies

See more of our mutli-part series on this topic

Is the Federal Aviation Administration doing enough to keep you safe in the air?

According to a recent federal government report, the agency could be doing more.

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovered a report from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation released in December 2011, which calls the FAA to task for failing to provide proper oversight of pilot training and for failing to adequately monitor pilot performance.

That directly impacts your safety, especially when you consider that close calls in our skies happen more often than most people realize.

We dug through 30 years of records from the FAA’s accident and incident database, as well as NASA’s Anonymous Safety Reporting System. We obtained reports chronicling everything from near mid-air collisions or NMACs, to airspace violations, from conflicts in the air to incursions on the ground.

Commercial pilot Ken Edwards remembers almost colliding with an airplane that he couldn’t see when he was flying over South Florida several years ago.

“In our case, it was the setting sun. It was the glare,” Edwards told us.” We simply couldn’t see anything outside, but we were being told very loudly by this computer-generated voice that we were about to collide with another air craft.”

Edwards is talking about the TCAS or Traffic Collision Avoidance System located inside almost all cockpits.

He went on to say, “It was scary. There’s a few seconds where if you blink, you miss it. It happens that quickly.”

The threat is just as real here in the Bay Area. We tracked NMAC’s, airborne conflicts and official FAA reports dating back to 2000 and found 1,032 different incidents in our region.

“There are more of these situations that take place than the public has an awareness of,” said retired FAA manager turned whistleblower Gabe Bruno. “The FAA has made an effort to hide these numbers in the past. (They say) we don’t report these things.”

Bruno and other critics believe the FAA is waiting until one of these close calls becomes a tragedy before the agency does more to prevent them from happening.

“The culture within the FAA,” said Bruno, “is one of ‘let’s keep things quiet, don’t rock the boat, we don’t want to have any problems on our watch.’”

The Inspector General’s report blasts the FAA for failing to provide “the rigor needed to identify and track poor performing pilots and address potential program risks.”

Bruno claims that the FAA wants to hide any issues that are critical of the agency.

“They want to make sure that any problems that the FAA is having in terms of performance, that kind of thing doesn’t get out,” said Bruno.

The report also says that the FAA has “…still not implemented initiatives with the greatest potential to improve safety,” and that the “FAA is not well positioned to assess air carrier’s pilot training programs.”

It goes on the state that the FAA “does not provide sufficient oversight of pilot performance.”

And, perhaps most troubling, the report finds that the FAA does not have procedures in place “to prevent two pilots in remedial training programs from being paired together during scheduled commercial flights.”

“That should never happen,” said Edwards.

He says pairing inexperienced pilots who fail multiple proficiency tests can be a dangerous problem if the wrong two pilots end up in the same cockpit.

“I’ve had experience where you go straight from training to flying with a very immature pilot,” said Edwards, “(one) who has very bad habits.”

NBC Bay Area investigator Stephen Stock asked Edwards, “And how is that a bad thing?”

“Well, if you’re cutting corners when you first become a pilot because the people you’re flying with are cutting corners,” said Edwards, “chances are you’re going to do the same thing.”

“And that could eventually cost lives?” asked Stock.

“That could eventually cost lives,” said Edwards. “Easily.”

According to the report, for more than a decade the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called for the FAA to incorporate safety improvements impacting pilot performance and professionalism. The NTSB determined that the cause of the fatal 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in New York was due in part to the pilots’ failure to follow appropriate procedures.

Doug Rice, senior vice president of the California Pilots Association, told us that there isn’t necessarily time for FAA inspectors to check an airline pilot every time he flies. A native of the Bay Area, Rice has piloted commercial planes for more than three decades.

We asked him if the public should be worried.

“No, because that’s the pilot’s responsibility,” Rice said. “We are going to respond in the safest manner possible to avoid any sort of threat situation.”

For its part, the FAA says it has addressed some of these problems. In a statement emailed to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, the FAA says it “uses rigorous, data-driven oversight system for all aspects of aviation safety, including pilot training and proficiency.” It also says “the FAA’s new training rule will address whether controls should be in place to prevent pilots in remedial training programs from being paired together.”

Rice believes that it is a testament to the FAA that pilots have maintained a safe and successful system.

But he said there are ways to do it better.

“And the Inspector General’s report brings that up,” he said.

The report also points out that the FAA doesn’t provide airlines with full access to a pilot’s background checks and flying history so that airlines can’t adequately evaluate a pilot’s competency.

The Inspector General’s office tells us that the FAA’s response falls short on several critical safety issues. The office has asked for further action and explanations from the FAA to Congress. That is expected on Capitol Hill soon.

See the reactions from some Congressional representatives on this issue elsewhere on this website.

See more of our mutli-part series on this topic

Do you have a story we should investigate? Email theunit@nbcbayarea.com.

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