FAA Rules Make Pilot Training More Real to Limit Crashes

Airline pilots will get more realistic and expanded simulator training under the most significant revision to U.S. aviation-safety regulations in 25 years.

Pilots will receive more instruction on recovering when planes go out of control, handling cross winds and working together as a team, under a rule U.S. transportation regulators adopted to attack the biggest killers in aviation, the Federal Aviation Administration said today.

“This is a bright and shining day for us,” Mary Ellen Mellett, one of a group of relatives of the 50 people who died in a Feb. 12, 2009, crash near Buffalo, said in an interview after a press conference unveiling the rule. Mellett’s son, Coleman, 34, died on the plane.

The FAA estimated the rule changes would cost airlines from $274 million to $354 million over 10 years, while saving $689 million by preventing accidents and deaths. The main training provisions take effect in 5 years.

“This is a good example where rulemaking has moved to catch up to the continually improving safety practices in place today at many airlines,” Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen said in an e-mail. The Washington trade group represents carriers that work under contract for larger airlines.

Carriers such as United Continental Holdings Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. “will work collaboratively with the FAA to implement the rule,” Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for the Washington trade group Airlines for America, said in an e-mail.

Family Pressure

Carriers had said the proposal should be scrapped because it would be more costly than FAA predicted, according to public comments by Airlines for America. Many of the safety benefits FAA sought already were realized due to other technology improvements, the group had said.

Pressure from relatives of the Buffalo crash victims led Congress to order some provisions of the rule. The crash was caused by a pilot who misunderstood a cockpit warning and began a series of violent maneuvers that sent the plane plummeting.

“I can’t imagine a worse day than the day these families experienced back in February of 2009,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at the Washington event. “But they have channeled their grief into advocating for safety improvements that will benefit millions of families all across America.”

Attendants ‘Disappointed’

The Association of Flight Attendants union said it was “disappointed” that provisions requiring enhanced training for them and airline dispatchers, who advise pilots on weather, scheduling and other safety-related issues, were dropped from the FAA’s earlier proposals.

“AFA has worked alongside the FAA for years on drafting performance standards for flight attendants and it is unfortunate that these issues were not included in the rule,” the U.S.’s largest flight-attendant union said in an e-mail.

Enacting all of the provisions from its initial proposal would have created an “unacceptable delay,” the agency said in the rule.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said he is summoning airline safety officials to Washington on Nov. 21 to discuss additional safety improvements.

“I also want to call on the industry to continue to embrace voluntary initiatives to make air-carrier training programs as robust as possible,” Huerta said.

‘Safety Enhancement’

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents nearly 50,000 air crewmembers in North America, called the rule in an e-mail statement a “significant safety enhancement” in both training and flight simulators.

While the FAA’s rule won’t apply to airline pilots outside the U.S., other nations often follow the agency’s lead. Other recent accidents, such as the July 6 crash of an Asiana Airlines Inc. plane attempting to land in San Francisco, also are focused on pilot actions. Three people died when the plane struck a seawall short of the runway. The NTSB hasn’t issued its findings on the accident.

The rule, which had been under development at FAA since 2004, is also a response to U.S. National Transportation Safety Board recommendations. The NTSB had called for many of the training enhancements in findings issued after accidents, including the regional turboprop approaching Buffalo operated by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.’s former Colgan unit.

The FAA identified 11 U.S. airline accidents from 1988 to 2009 that may have been prevented by the new training, according to the rule.

Stall in Flight

The rule is aimed at pilot-induced crashes such as when a functioning plane goes out of control, the largest killer in commercial aviation around the world from 2003 through 2012, according to an analysis by Boeing Co. Such accidents killed 1,698 people during that time, nearly twice as many as the next category and more than one-third of all 4,408 deaths.

The NTSB and France’s Office of Investigations and Analysis found in recent accidents that pilots couldn’t recover from aerodynamic stalls, which cause a plane’s wings to lose lift and plunge, because they hadn’t been adequately trained in simulators.

Like the Colgan flight crew, a pilot on Air France Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing 228 people, pointed the plane’s nose skyward in response to a cockpit alarm, causing it to stall and then fall into the ocean. The correct response to a stall is to push a plane’s nose down, increasing speed and airflow over the wings.

Advances in mathematical models used for simulators allowed them in recent years to accurately replicate a stall, opening the door to new training, Lou Nemeth, chief safety officer at simulator manufacturer CAE Inc. of Canada, said in an interview last year.

Teamwork Encouraged

The FAA will move as quickly as possible to draft new regulations allowing those simulator enhancements so pilots can train with them, Huerta said.

For decades, pilots were discouraged from entering a stall in a simulator because they weren’t portrayed accurately.

Another provision of FAA’s rule focuses on improving how pilots monitor each other when they aren’t at the controls, Huerta said.

It also requires airlines to do a better job of remedial training for pilots who fail flight tests. The pilot in the Colgan crash had failed several such checks.

The training rule is one of several efforts to improve how pilots handle stalls and a loss of control. The FAA in 2012 issued an advisory for pilots on how to recover from such events.

The rule announced today is the third major regulatory change since the Colgan accident. In the past year the FAA has also tightened hours airline flight crews may work to limit fatigue and increased the minimum experience required for pilots.

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