The Real Lesson of the JetBlue Pilot Meltdown

Why is the airline industry so opposed to better training for co-pilots?

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Clayton Osbon, the pilot of JetBlue Flight 191 to Las Vegas who turned off the radios, dimmed its monitors and told First Officer Jason Dowd that “we need to take a leap of faith” until Dowd was able to lock him out of the cockpit and make an emergency landing in Amarillo, TX, now faces criminal charges and is being medically evaluated. Dowd performed admirably in safely landing the aircraft, so he and JetBlue deserve credit. But the outcome could have been much different. In a time when the airline industry is lobbying to weaken regulations for pilot training, the incident raises some serious questions about larger safety issues.

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Two weeks ago, the Senate Aviation Subcommittee held a hearing to address the Airline Safety Act, which was passed after the fatal Colgan Air/Continental Connection Flight 3407 crash near Buffalo in 2009. 50 people died in that accident, which was attributed to the pilot’s failure to respond properly to a stall warning. The Airline Safety Act toughened rules about hiring more experienced pilots and preventing pilot fatigue. But as the recent hearing made clear, many of the requirements set forth by the act have not been met. Indeed, Calvin L. Scovell III, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, testified: “The Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] has not met timelines for raising pilot training standards, implementing mentoring programs, providing enhanced leadership skills to captains, and increasing minimum pilot qualifications.”

Those are strong charges. Yet the industry immediately voiced opposition to a new FAA proposal that all first officers, or co-pilots, secure a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time prior to certification. At the hearing, Tom Hendricks of the trade group Airlines for America balked at this as a “quantity vs. quality” issue and expressed concerns about the “need to avoid the unintended consequence of this rule becoming a significant barrier to recruiting airline pilots.” But many experts agree with Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who performed so admirably landing a disabled plane on the Hudson River in 2009, and who has frequently spoken out against the current requirement of just 250 hours for co-pilots as being “unbelievably low.”

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In protesting more stringent requirements, airline industry officials often claim that commercial flying has gotten much safer. “No mainline U.S. airline has had a fatal passenger accident in over a decade,” Hendricks said at the hearing. But that reference to the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001 omits the six fatal accidents of domestic regional airlines since 2003, culminating in a total of 155 deaths. In five of these cases, the smaller airlines—Air Midwest, Pinnacle, Corporate, Comair, and Colgan Air—were flying as commuter partners of mainline carriers US Airways, Northwest, American, Delta, and Continental.

Today a staggering 53% of all commercial flights in the U.S. are outsourced to regionals. When the industry and even the government parse statistics to dismiss fatal regional accidents, family members of victims are understsandably incensed. “I think it’s a slap in the face for anyone who has lost a loved one,” says Karen Eckert, a tireless advocate whose sister Beverly Eckert was killed in the Buffalo crash. She and 20 other Flight 3407 family members were present at the Senate hearing. “All passengers who buy an airline ticket in the United States should be guaranteed one level of safety,” she told me last week.

The real lesson of the JetBlue incident is that the need for implementing the Airline Safety Act and even tougher rules has never been greater. Yes, our nation has a stellar commercial aviation safety record. But with an industry lobbying to weaken regulations, and an FAA often lacking the resources to provide adequate oversight, frontline experts warn that won’t last long.