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FAA Pilot Oversight ‘Lacks Rigor,’ U.S. Investigator Says

U.S. aviation regulators lack the “rigor” to identify and track pilots who repeatedly fail tests of their cockpit skills, according to a Transportation Department inspector general’s report.

Federal Aviation Administration inspectors are inadequately trained and the agency’s scattered data makes it difficult to find pilot records, the inspector general’s office said today in a report. The FAA has spent almost three years after a fatal crash near Buffalo, New York, trying to better monitor under-performing pilots.

“FAA has yet to provide the level of oversight needed to identify and track poor-performing pilots and ensure air carriers have the information needed to hire qualified pilots,” the report said.

The pilot of a Pinnacle Airlines Corp. Colgan Air turboprop that crashed on Feb. 12, 2009, killing 50 people, had failed four FAA proficiency checks prior to the accident, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Captain Marvin Renslow’s abrupt maneuvers caused the plane to go out of control and crash, the board found.

The safety board after the accident issued at least 10 recommendations to improve remedial pilot training and better track pilot test failures. Congress also pressed the FAA to make improvements.

Oversight Shortcomings

Only 5 of 30 FAA inspectors interviewed by the inspector general’s office kept historical logs or tracked cases of pilots who failed proficiency checks, according to the report.

More than half the inspectors didn’t do more intense oversight of pilots identified as poor performers. In some cases, pilots with multiple test failures got no additional oversight, the report said.

The FAA, after the Colgan crash, took steps to make previous test results available to airlines when they hire pilots. Three of Renslow’s four failures occurred before he was hired at Colgan, and the airline testified at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing that it would have fired him had it known.

FAA data on test results is located in different databases and the agency “lacks an effective process to provide carriers with pilot record data,” the report said.

“Until FAA takes a more active role in evaluating pilots and air carrier training programs and provides air carriers full access to pilot information, it cannot be assured that air carriers will maintain momentum in advancing these important initiatives,” the report said.

FAA Concurs

The inspector general issued seven recommendations in the report that called for standardizing how airlines report pilot test failures to the FAA and for better training for the agency’s inspectors.

The FAA said in a Nov. 28 written response to the report that it agreed with all or part of each of the inspector general’s recommendations.

“FAA is committed to improving its oversight of the air transport industry and will allocate the resources necessary to ensure that these safety enhancements are implemented,” the agency said.

Renslow’s actions just prior to the crash -- yanking the plane’s nose skyward in reaction to a warning horn -- put the spotlight on pilot skills and how airlines weed out poor performers, particularly at regional airlines such as Colgan.

Regional Vs Major

Pilots involved in eight out of nine serious regional-carrier accidents from 2000 to 2009 had failed multiple skill tests, according to National Transportation Safety Board accident records. The accidents killed 137 people.

By comparison, pilots from major airlines had failed tests in only 1 of 10 accidents, according to the records. Major airlines include US Airways Group Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co.

Commercial pilots must undergo periodic so-called check rides in which inspectors from the FAA or airlines test their ability to fly and respond to emergencies.

Investigators from the inspector general’s office reviewed records at 15 regional airlines, including Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group Inc.’s Mesa Airlines and Republic Airways Holdings Inc.’s Chautauqua Airlines Inc. in Indianapolis.

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