US government safety auditors say the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of airline pilot training and proficiency programmes "lacks the rigour needed to identify and track poor performing pilots and address programme risks".

The finding, by the US Transportation Department's office of inspector general (OIG) comes nearly three years after the February 2009 crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 near Buffalo, later attributed in part by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to the captain's failure to follow procedures. The accident spawned a wide variety of pilot training studies and upgrades, including a "Call to Action" programme by the FAA in June 2009.

Included in the short- to mid-term actions were efforts to improve pilot performance and training, increase air carrier participation in voluntary safety programmes and expand pilot records reviews.

"The Colgan accident highlighted differences between the hiring, training and safety programs of most regional and mainline carriers even though they are under the same regulations and oversight system," said the OIG in the 20 December 2011 report.

Initiated by a congressional request, the OIG set out in October 2009 to investigate the FAA's progress, interviewing 18 air carriers, 18 FAA inspection offices and 60 inspectors and managers during the two-year audit.

During the Colgan investigation, the NTSB determined that the captain failed four FAA certification checks, the last of which was 16 months before the crash. "Consistent with standard practice in the airline industry at the time, Colgan did not perform a comprehensive search of the airman's full record and, therefore, was unaware of the captain's previous failures," the report stated.

Of the 18 airlines audited, OIG said six were not reviewing historical training records of pilots who "entered a remedial training program to identify unresolved performance problems". From the regulator's side, the OIG said FAA inspectors do not include inspections of remedial training programmes into their air carrier surveillance plans.

As part of the Call to Action programme, the FAA requested that pilot applicants voluntarily disclose training records of such failures to employers, but the OIG found that 34 of the 80 carriers that responded to the Call the Action had not yet changed their procedures to ask pilot applicants for the information. Carriers wishing to get the background information from the FAA must make requests to two different FAA offices using different request forms, the OIG reported.

Other observations in the OIG audit included pilots with repeated failures and remedial training "effectively absolved from scrutiny" after a carrier downgraded them from captain to first officer; a carrier failing to "sufficiently observe" pilots with multiple training failures in a remedial training programme due to an influx of new hire pilots, and 13 out of 13 carriers queried that did not have procedures in place to keep two pilots undergoing remedial training from being paired together on scheduled flights, a practice that is allowed by regulations but one the OIG is recommending be studied to see if it should be banned.

In the case of the downgraded pilots, the FAA inspector overseeing the carrier "maintained emails from the carrier documenting the failures and remediation", but the pilots had been removed from the carrier's tracking roster and their training cycles reset as part of the downgrade from captain to first officer, said the OIG. "Ultimately, the inspector took no further action to observe the pilots or reevaluate the carrier's program to determine whether the downgraded pilots should receive additional oversight in the interest of safety," the OIG concluded.

Along with recommending that airlines develop standardised procedures for reporting failures of pilot proficiency checks, remedial and recurrent flight training, the OIG also asked that FAA inspectors be required to monitor those failure trends and "target surveillance to highest risk areas". Of the seven recommendations offered in the report and shared with the FAA, four continue to be "open", including the two above, according to the OIG.

"Until the 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 audit concluded.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news