As a new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief is about to take the controls with a distinguished aviation education, airline career and “culture of safety” record behind him, it causes one to pause and think just what should the immediate and longer-term safety priorities of the agency be.
After many decades of representing airplane accident victims and their families, as well as working closely with our accident investigation and safety engineering experts, the following initial 10-point to-do list may serve him well.
1) Fix the 737 MAX fleet and get those airplanes flying safely.
Already dead – 346 people in five months. The fleet is grounded and the daily cost astronomical. NTSB, Boeing and FAA must investigate and finalize means of prevention fast, followed by FAA mandate of fixes and airline implementation of fixes.
2) Identify FAA, Boeing and any other deficiencies that led to 737 MAX issues and accidents and fix them in the short and long terms.
Neither Boeing nor the FAA and entire U.S. aviation manufacturing industry should tolerate a repeat of these design and certification sins. NTSB, DOJ, DOT Inspector General, Boeing and FAA must quickly investigate and finalize means of prevention, followed by congressional and FAA mandate of fixes, and FAA and manufacturing industry implementation of fixes.
3) Restore international airworthiness authority confidence in FAA airworthiness certifications and its DER program. The 737 MAX design and certification program appears to have been egregiously unbalanced in favor of financial profit over safety with clear violations of system safety design principles for airliners and training principles for airline pilots. The FAA needs to explain to the world how Boeing and FAA caused this, accept full responsibility, and explain what they are doing to prevent recurrence and restore faith in the U.S. airworthiness system. One idea would be to establish severe financial and program participation penalties for any FAA Designated Engineering Representative (DER) or other designee and its employer that is found to have made faulty airworthiness findings. Increasing penalty levels should be imposed based on the potential or actual consequences, such as the recent fatal 737 MAX crashes that should result in the most severe of penalties for Boeing and its DERs and other designees involved in the actions and inactions that caused or contributed to those crashes.
4) Require video recording systems with two hours minimum recording duration on all airliners carrying more than six passengers.
Modern technology in cockpits requires video evidence to convincingly determine probable cause and prevent pilots from being easily blamed for everything without adequate identification and understanding of system issues that cause or contribute to accidents. The FAA needs to work with Congress to add video recorders to the list of protected recordings in crash investigations and then require airliners to be so equipped, ignoring the selfish privacy concerns of airline pilots who think their union lobbyists and money can prevent the FAA from requiring this passive safety technology that NTSB and every other interested party has wanted for more than 20 years. Pilots, passengers and the entire aviation community will benefit from this and will come to appreciate it after the first couple of crashes that show airplane system issues contributing to pilot errors and crashes. Probable cause statements and prevention of recurrence will then be much more probable, with crash rates finally starting to decrease again after a long leveling off.
5) Require deployable flight recorders for one of the two required cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder on airliners.
No longer will months or years be spent waiting for recorders to be found in 20,000-foot depths. Data will come within days in every case. The FAA simply needs to mandate this as the underlying recorder technical standards have been established internationally. Deployables have already been installed in numerous airplanes, and all that remains is an FAA final rule and regulation. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the world will follow as usual, especially since Airbus has already accepted the concept and begun deployable recorder installations on some of its new airplanes.
6) Require Runway Awareness and Alerting Systems on all airliners carrying more than six passengers.
Runway incursions and related incidents continue to present some of the highest crash probabilities, and incidents occur annually that could have been prevented with this technology. The 2006 Comair takeoff crash in Lexington, Kentucky, would easily have been prevented with this technology, as would most of the lesser incidents since then. FAA needs to mandate this simple software addition.
7) Require periodic software and database updates for all Terrain Awareness Warning Systems (TAWS).
TAWS has saved thousands of lives since its worldwide implementation after many Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) crashes, concluding with the 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam that led to sweeping NTSB recommendations and FAA action. As with most software-based safety systems, TAWS require periodic updates to their software and the terrain and obstacle databases that make them work. Unfortunately, the FAA and TAWS manufacturers have not acted thoroughly nor effectively in assuring that all airliners and cargo aircraft keep their TAWS updated, with occasional fatal consequences. The FAA needs to work with TAWS manufacturers and operators to fix this software update problem and prevent recurrence.
8) Require Low Airspeed Alerting Systems on all airliners carrying more than six passengers.
Pilot failure to maintain airspeed and subsequent loss of control has been one of the most common accident causes since the beginning of aviation over 100 years ago. It took the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), his wife and others on a Beech King Air in Minnesota to get the NTSB to look beyond blaming pilots every time and use modern software technology to give pilots more advance notice of their low airspeed trend before it’s too late for them to correct it and prevent a crash. The resulting Low Airspeed Alerting system safety recommendations have been accepted by the FAA and industry for new, larger airliners but not for smaller airliners and commercial airplanes like the King Air that killed Wellstone, and the FAA has lagged for more than 15 years in issuing final rules and regulations.
9) The new FAA leader would also do well to make a renewed effort to rapidly satisfy all NTSB Most Wanted safety recommendations for the aviation mode, as documented for 2019-2020 on the NTSB website.
10) Most importantly, the new FAA leader must keep more of an eye on the public safety and not the bottom line.
That dual role of the FAA has tipped the scales too far in favor of the bottom line during the 737 MAX program with fatal and shameful consequences.
And what’s the consumer to do to help one’s self and society in this period of uncertainty in aviation safety? The most effective approach is threefold:
* Trust that there are hundreds of thousands of highly educated, trained, ethical, hard-working and caring engineers, pilots, mechanics and other aviation professionals in industry and government who are trying their best to make sure aviation is the safest mode of transportation in the world with a goal of zero accidents. The U.S. went more than nine years between the fatal 2009 Colgan airline accident and the fatal 2018 Southwest airline accident – a remarkable achievement of many millions of flights between fatalities. Other countries have not been as fortunate for a variety of reasons, and there is constant international effort to lower crash rates for all countries, especially those with the higher accident rates.
* Fly on the largest modern jet airplanes operated by the largest and oldest, most experienced airlines with the safest records – search “accident rates by airline.”
* Go to www.usa.gov/elected-officials and write your federal elected officials with a personalized message in hope that they will communicate to the new FAA leader your desire to make sure the FAA makes safety a higher priority than money in all of its decisions, from the newly-minted college graduate at the FAA all the way to him, and everyone in between. Do not hesitate to offer what might be good ideas – the more ideas and minds the better when it comes to preventing crashes and improving safety.