New safety legislation 'is not necessary': FAA's Babbitt

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US FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt says a bill introduced by Congress earlier this week aimed at improving regional airline safety in the wake of February's Colgan Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 crash "is not necessary" because the agency has already taken sufficient steps to address the issues raised by the fatal crash.

If enacted, the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009 would force the FAA and regional carriers to enhance training and hiring requirements and fatigue countermeasures. The bill was introduced in the House on 29 July but Babbitt believes by the time Congress returns from its summer recess in September and starts debating the bill the need for such legislation will be moot. He points out the FAA has been working with regional carriers the last couple of months on several safety enhancements.

"I think we may be well enough along [with these efforts] that by the time this bill works its way to the floor that we may be able to see some of the supporters of this and say: 'This was a great idea but we did it already and here's the final product. We don't need to do anything except to finish this,'" Babbitt told Flightglobal in an interview during AirVenture 2009 in Oshkosh.

"I think this is not necessary. Many of the things they are looking to address have already been addressed."

Babbitt points out that the FAA is already proposing new rules governing pilot training and rest. As part of the FAA's effort to improve regional airline safety in the wake of the Colgan crash, in June Babbitt also asked all regional carriers to provide by the close of business on 31 July a written commitment to adapt voluntary safety measures. Babbitt says it has already received "a good number" of replies from this request and to date all of them have been positive. He says more replies are expected to come in the last day before the deadline and he is confident most, if not all, carriers will respond although they are not required to do so.

"It's not a mandate. [To be a requirement] I'd have to propose a rule and that would take a fair amount of time," Babbitt explains. "We've asked what I thought was a reasonable request. We have also indicated that by the end of September I will make public who hasn't complied with the request."

Specifically Babbitt is asking airlines to participate in voluntary safety reporting schemes such as the Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) and the Aviation Safety Action Programme (ASAP). "We have a call to action. All of the regional carriers I hope will be in compliance with our request to have FOQA and ASAP programmes," Babbitt says.

While most of the requirements included in the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009 are already being addressed by the FAA as part of earlier actions, Babbitt acknowledges the bill's proposal to significantly increase the minimum hours of flight time required for first officers would be a totally new requirement. But Babbitt believes requiring airline co-pilots to have at least 1,500 hours is not necessary.

"In the pilot community I think it is acknowledged that simply raising the total amount of time by over half is not really a good benchmark for how good the quality of the pilot is," Babbitt says. "The quality of training is far more important than the quantity of training or total time."

Babbitt, who took over as FAA administrator two months ago and is a former head of the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), says the agency will try to educate members of Congress to prove to them that quality of training is more important than quantity.

"I think we need to do some education in a few areas," he says. "Every now and again someone makes a misconception and says, 'oh my goodness this is a very bad situation.' In some of these we can say: 'Look this is a misconception. Here are the actual facts.' I think we'll actually do that with some of these cases."

Babbitt's comments follows suggestions by Air Transport Association of America (ATA) CEO James May that lawmakers should wait until interventions already launched by the FAA and others have an opportunity to generate results before legislating any changes.