Twelve Years After Colgan 3407, FAA Still Hasn’t Implemented Pilot Records Database

By Chairman Robert Sumwalt

I grew up in the South, and people sometimes say we do things slowly in that part of the country. Whether there’s any validity to that claim, I can’t say with certainty. What I can say with great certainty, however, is that speed isn’t an attribute commonly associated with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an agency within the US Department of Transportation. Below is a sad, but true, example of the glacial pace of the FAA’s rulemaking processes—even in the wake of a congressional mandate to get something done. Perhaps the new secretary of transportation can give a needed boost to this untenable situation.   

On this date 12 years ago—February 12, 2009—while on approach to the Buffalo‑Niagara International Airport in New York, Colgan Air flight 3407, a Bombardier Q-400 turboprop, plunged from the sky. Fifty lives were lost, including that of a man who died when the turboprop crashed into his home.

The NTSB’s year-long investigation revealed that, as the airplane slowed on approach, the captain became startled by the activation of the aircraft’s stall warning system. In response to something that should have been easily dealt with, the captain inappropriately manipulated the elevator controls, forcing the aircraft into its fateful dive. Our investigation found that the captain had a history of piloting performance deficiencies, including having failed several flight tests. Possibly more troubling, he concealed these performance deficiencies from Colgan when he applied for employment.

The Colgan crash was the deadliest US airline disaster in the past 19 years.

In response to this tragedy, the NTSB issued safety recommendations to the FAA to strengthen the way airlines ascertain a pilot applicant’s background, including requiring previous employers to disclose training records and records of any previous failures.

Congress took note of these recommendations and included them in a bill signed into law in August 2010. This law required the FAA to establish a pilot records database (PRD), and stipulated that “before allowing an individual to begin service as a pilot, an air carrier shall access and evaluate . . .  information pertaining to the individual from the pilot records database.” Items required to be entered into the PRD, and considered by hiring airlines, included “training, qualifications, proficiency, or professional competence of the individual, including comments and evaluations made by a check airman . . . any disciplinary action taken with respect to the individual that was not subsequently overturned; and any release from employment or resignation, termination, or disqualification with respect to employment.” Congress appropriated $6 million per year for the next 4 years to help facilitate creation of the PRD—a total of $24 million.

The FAA’s response reminds me of my college’s football team—they get off to a good start, but after scoring on the opening drive, they have difficulty executing for the rest of the game.

In early 2011, the FAA established an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) to develop recommendations on the best way to implement the PRD. Despite the ARC completing its work and issuing a report to the FAA in July 2011—just 6 months after being tasked with developing recommendations—it wasn’t until September 2015 that the FAA began a phased approach to implementing the PRD.

By July 2016, Congress had become impatient with the FAA’s lack of progress. After all, it had been 6 years since the FAA was required to create the PRD, and there was still no appreciable progress. Congress gave the FAA a new deadline: it mandated the PRD be in place by April 30, 2017.

Unfortunately, April 30, 2017, came and went. Still no PRD. Meanwhile, 40 days after that deadline, a young pilot applied for employment at Atlas Air and was hired shortly thereafter. As with the Colgan Air captain, this pilot concealed his history of performance deficiencies, which deprived Atlas Air the opportunity to fully evaluate his aptitude and competency as a pilot. He struggled with training at Atlas, but after failing his check ride, he was retrained and passed. Tragically, on February 23, 2019, on what should have been a routine cargo flight from Miami to Houston, this pilot, like the Colgan Air captain, encountered something that startled him. He overreacted and put the Boeing 767 into a fatal dive. The commonalities between the Colgan Air crash and the Atlas Air crash are striking: Both pilots had a record of poor performance prior to their employment, both pilots concealed that information when applying for airline employment, and both pilots misapplied the flight controls following events they weren’t expecting. Events that should have been easily corrected. Events that, tragically, led to their aircraft plunging to the ground.

Neither of these sad events was an isolated case. Including these two crashes, the NTSB has investigated 11 air carrier accidents over 3 decades in which pilots with a history of unsatisfactory performance were hired by an airline and then were later involved in an accident attributed to their poor piloting performance.

After years of foot dragging, last March, the FAA provided its first visible indication of moving forward with the PRD, publishing a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to give the public a glimpse of what the proposed rule may look like—10 years after Congress initially mandated it, and 3 years after the April 2017 deadline that Congress eventually imposed.

The NPRM indicated that the PRD should be implemented sometime this year; however, the NPRM also proposes allowing a 2-year phase-in period. This puts complete implementation somewhere around a 2023 timeframe, assuming this proposed timeline holds. If that’s the case, we will finally have the PRD 14 years after the Colgan Air disaster, 13 years after Congress mandated it, 5 years after the deadline imposed by Congress, and 4 years after the Atlas Air crash.

A crash is a tragedy. It’s even more tragic to see a similar crash happen again and again and not have the regulatory agency responsible for safeguarding the skies take corrective action in a reasonable timeframe. We’re past the point of reasonable, and the traveling public deserves better.

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