Cantwell Urges Continued Vigilance for Airline Passenger Safety

WSU sleep expert testifies before Senate Aviation Subcommittee **VIDEO AVAILABLE**

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a Senate Aviation Subcommittee hearing today, chair U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) convened aviation stakeholders to discuss Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and airline industry efforts to meet safety requirements put into place after the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York.

“We must maintain constant vigilance and make sure that ongoing system improvements are made. And we need to know all of the potential mishaps that could happen,” said Cantwell during her opening remarks. “… The purpose of today’s hearing is to examine commercial aviation safety since the Colgan Air crash, and the progress that has been made by the FAA and the industry collectively and to hear from the public about these issues.”Watch her full opening remarks here.

Dr. Gregory Belenky, Director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University, appeared before the committee. In his prepared testimony, Dr. Belenky addressed the FAA’s rule to establish a maximum flight duty period, saying: “In the new rule, the FAA has effectively combined science and operational experience. They introduce the maximum flight duty period as the basis for the prescriptive rule, and, fatigue risk management systems as an alternative to the prescriptive rule. The maximum flight duty period takes into account the effects of time on duty, the circadian rhythm, and segments flown. The maximum flight duty period neatly captures and mitigates the three major components of fatigue – time awake, circadian rhythm, and workload.”  

Today’s hearing followed up on a series of Aviation Subcommittee hearings held in the aftermath of the tragic crash of Colgan Flight 3407. During these hearings, committee members heard how pilot training, fatigue and experience could impact passenger safety. Committee members also discussed the safety standards of regional airlines, which carry about one quarter of U.S. passengers.

In response to information learned in these hearings, Cantwell, other members of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee and members of the House strengthened airline safety standards in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010. The legislation made a number of improvements to airline safety, including the requirement that the FAA finalize regulations to specify flight time and duty limits using the best available scientific information. These rules were issued in December 2011. The legislation further required airlines to implement safety management systems and promoted the use of voluntary safety programs.

Other FAA rulemakings include the establishment of a pilot records database, requirements for airline transport pilot certificates for pilots and first officers, and bolstering pilot and crew training and mentoring. A pilot needs a minimum number of 1,500 flight hours to qualify for an airline transport pilot certificate. The legislation also required an air carrier to inform a passenger at the time of booking whether they are operating the flight or if it is being operated by a code share partner. President Obama signed the bill into law in August 2010.

A transcript of Senator Cantwell’s opening remarks as delivered is below.

Senator Maria Cantwell

Opening Statement

Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation

March 20, 2012

Good afternoon, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Aviation Operations and Safety Subcommittee will come to order. I thank the witnesses for being here today for our hearing on Commercial Airline Safety Oversight. And I thank the witnesses for their testimony and my colleagues for attending this hearing.

I want to welcome my fellow members of the committee, the witnesses, and the families of the victims of Colgan Air Flight 3407. Your steadfast efforts in the face of tragedy have led to safety improvements that would not have happened otherwise. Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of all the flying public.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s continued mission is “to provide the safest and most efficient airspace system in the world.” And -- by and large -- our air transportation does maintain a very high level of safety day in and day out.

The National Safety Transportation Board conducted an examination of U.S. civil aviation accidents involving commercial passenger and cargo carriers from 2000 through 2009. And this study shows that there is a drop in the accident rate when measured by the departures and number of flight hours.

That is the good news for the American traveling public.

And this is a credit to all the hard work put in by the FAA, airlines, airline manufacturers, and other stakeholders. Nevertheless, we cannot rest. We must maintain constant vigilance and make sure that ongoing system improvements are made. And we need to know all of the potential mishaps that could happen.

Take the year 2009. The five fatal accidents involving commercial aircraft included 3 non-scheduled international cargo flights, 1 non-scheduled domestic business jet flight, and 1 scheduled domestic passenger flight – the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, NY, in which 50 lives were lost.

There has not been a domestic commercial airline crash since. These results are a tribute to the incredibly hard work of, as I said, the airline industry and FAA employees focusing on safety.

But that doesn’t mean that things are working perfectly. We need to continue our efforts.

First we need to understand the root cause of the accident. And getting to the root cause of the Colgan Air crash is just what this Committee did over the course of a dozen hearings that this Subcommittee held in the last Congress.

And I appreciate the steadfast work of my colleagues Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in advocating for the families of the Colgan Air tragedy.

Pilot experience and training proved to be a critical issue. And pilot and crew fatigue was of equal concern. We learned about unimaginable long pilot and crew commutes to work.

The co-pilot of Colgan Flight 3407 had a commute of over two thousand miles from Seattle to Newark. So compensation levels for less experienced pilots and crew is not the only reason for long commutes, but it is far too common a reason.

There was also much discussion regarding the consistency of safety practices between regional and large network airlines. And at a fundamental level, the hearing made question of whether regional carriers were effectively being used in their efforts to make sure that the level of safety was being provided. I find it very difficult to tell if one of the safety levels was more important than a policy of making sure that the airline giving the actual name to the regional carrier, whether they were meeting the same standards as the large carrier.

Not surprisingly, company culture makes a huge difference in how safety is approached. As with all industries, there is range of approaches to safety standards -- from top-notch to marginally compliant.

And we took particular notice of regional carriers because over half of all domestic departures and about one quarter of all passengers in the U.S. were on these regional carriers. And at this time, many passengers did not know what airline they were flying when they actually booked their ticket. They do now.

Given the current financial state of several regional carriers that fly for network airlines, I think that the FAA needs to keep a very close eye to make sure safety and commitment remains on par.

This Committee, working with Senator Schumer and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led the effort to pass the “Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Act of 2010”.

This legislation made a number of improvements to airline safety and pilot training. Last December, the final rules were issued for flight and duty times for pilots and crew, and proposed rules for pilot certification qualifications. There are several other key rule makings in various stages that are still making their way through the agency.

The purpose of today’s hearing is to examine commercial aviation safety since the Colgan Air crash, and the progress that has been made by the FAA and the industry collectively and to hear from the public about these issues.

In short, the hearing is to keep American travelers safe. And to make sure that we have the best safety practices in our air transportation system.

The Committee is very interested in learning the impacts of the 2010 law.

And we also want to understand whether the resulting rulemakings were implemented consistently with what Congress intended. Additionally, we would like to know if there are any issues that remain unaddressed either in the 2010 law that requires the FAA rules, or the recently enactment of the FAA authorization bill.

So I look forward to hearing from our witnesses and I think with the prerogative of the Chair here because have such a short hearing before votes, I’m just going to go ahead and forego any opening statements by members and go right to our witnesses. So we’ll start with you Ms. Gillian. Thank you so much for being here. If you could turn on your button and speak right into the microphone and if you could keep your statements short and provide the full written testimony we would so appreciate it.