It matters how we fly

Talking about his imminent departure from the Flight Safety Foundation for an executive safety oversight role at the FAA, FSF chief Bill Voss said:  ”I look forward to getting back into the operational world to see if I can still do more than make speeches. The FAA never runs out of challenges.”

Bill did a lot more at the FSF than make speeches, but what can he do at the FAA? He certainly knows it well – he worked there before he went to ICAO and then to the FSF.

Commercial aviation safety in the USA may not be perfect, but it’s so good that the FAA, because of how it’s constituted, has its hands tied behind its back. It cannot justify updating outdated regulation on the cost/benefit grounds that it needs to be able to demonstrate to be permitted to make changes. That means the organisation cannot change a regulation just because it should, or because it’s right to do so.

In turn, that means existing FAA regulation is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the modern world and the FAA might as well admit that it has no safety oversight role except to cajole the industry into doing the right thing, and apply fines for technical breaches of regulations. Maybe that will work, up to a point, but it’s a strange way to operate a government safety oversight agency.

Last year at Flightglobal’s London safety conference Bill delivered a keynote speech in which he shared some of his thoughts about airline operations today. Despite welcoming the unprecedented safety levels being achieved today, he said this: “I don’t feel we have this under control yet. The system seems fragile.”

He referred to the aircraft certification assumption that the pilot is there “to pick up the pieces when the automation fails”. Because of airline standard operating procedures which enjoin pilots not to do any of the flying, Voss observed, “today’s pilots follow the flight director and find the raw information a mere nuisance”.

Part of the reason for the latter, he commented, is that the ratio of training time to flying time is so low that “fixing training is much less of an issue than looking at how we fly”.

He’s not the first to bemoan the fact that today’s highly automated, highly reliable operations do not provide pilots with any on-the-job training, which used to be one of the assumed benefits of experience.

But if the airlines don’t make use of revenue flying time for keeping their pilots in touch with their aeroplanes, they will have to invest serious money in correcting that training/operating ratio. Which they won’t do without coercion.


See the previous blog entry for Airbus’ thoughts on similar issues

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