FAA chief defends modus operandi

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell on
Tuesday defended the federal agency against recent allegations of lax
oversight. 

“It’s not kinder and gentler, it’s smarter,”
Elwell said during a question-and-answer session at the Regional Airline
Association Annual Conference here. 

In April, the FAA was a target of a scathing “60
Minutes” report that accused it of being too cozy with Allegiant and too
tolerant of series of Allegiant mechanical issues. 

Subsequently, the DOT’s Office of the Inspector General
(OIG) has begun a series of audits into FAA oversight. The OIG is auditing the
FAA’s maintenance oversight of Allegiant, Southwest and American, and its
oversight of aircraft evacuation procedures. 

In July, the OIG found that the FAA lacks adequate
safeguards to properly oversee and respond to complaints about flight-test
programs that airlines are required to conduct on aircraft that have undergone
major repairs or maintenance. As a result, the FAA has agreed to an
OIG-recommended course of action designed to resolve the problem.

Responding to questions Tuesday from RAA president Faye
Malarkey Black, Elwell said the agency has shifted its approach more toward
achieving compliance from airlines and less toward punitive action over the
course of decades. 

Such a strategy, he said, has made sense, since commercial airline
crashes are far less frequent than they were decades ago. As a result, the
agency could no longer wait around for crashes, and then use forensic analysis
to learn how safeguards needed to be enhanced. 

Instead, the FAA has shifted toward being proactive in its
safety oversight, he said, and that means working more closely with the
airlines to get data. 

“You get data by telling airlines, ‘Tell us what
happened, and we can fix it together,'” Elwell said. 

The FAA administrator also said that he’s open to creating
more exceptions to the controversial 1,500-hour training requirement for pilots,
if data shows that alternative training programs would be more effective. 

Under regulations that took effect in 2013, pilot trainees
typically must amass 1,500 hours of flying to obtain a license to fly
commercial aircraft. Exceptions are allowed for military pilots, who must have
750 hours; graduates of qualified bachelor’s degree aviation programs, who must
fly 1,000 hours; and graduates of qualified associate’s degree aviation
programs, who must have 1,250 hours.

Those rules, however, have become a focus of sharp political
debate due to the pilot shortage that has plagued regional U.S. airlines,
causing flight cancellations, bankruptcies and airline closures.  

According to the University of North Dakota’s 2016 Pilot
Supply Forecast, the U.S. faces a looming shortage of 3,500 commercial pilots
by 2020. 

The Regional Airline Association and other stakeholders have
called for alternatives to the 1,500-hour rule and have said that targeted
training, including more work in flight simulators, can be more effective than
merely requiring lots of flight hours.

But reforms to the 1,500-hour rule have been consistently
opposed on safety grounds by the Air Line Pilots Association union and by the
relatives of the 49 people who perished on Colgan Air’s Flight 3407, which
crashed into a house on approach to Buffalo Niagara Airport in 2009, killing
all 49 passengers and crew as well as one person on the ground.

Elwell said that he spoke with the Colgan families last
month during an aviation workforce symposium the agency held. 

“I told them that safety has never been static and our
efforts with safety have never been static,” he said.

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