Scovel: FAA failed to implement most of safety reforms
WASHINGTON - A year after a regional airliner crashed into a house near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people, the government has failed to implement most of the safety reforms it promised in response to the accident, a government watchdog said Thursday.
Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel said the Federal Aviation Administration has fallen behind schedule or failed to meet goals on eight of 10 measures the agency said it would take, including new regulations to prevent pilot fatigue and better inspection of training for regional airline pilots.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt countered that his agency deserves credit for its hard work and said the law requires FAA to go through a time-consuming process before adopting new regulations.
"We would all love to move faster," Babbit told the committee.
The Feb. 12, 2009, crash is considered one of the most significant aviation accidents in recent years because it pointed to what many experts say is a lower level of safety for smaller regional airlines that operate short-haul flights for larger carriers. Regional airlines provide the only scheduled service to about 440 communities in the U.S., accounting for about half of domestic departures and one-quarter of airline passengers.
Regional carrier Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Va., was operating the flight for Continental Airlines. The National Transportation Safety Board has said pilot error caused the crash.
Scovel said that while the FAA stepped up pilot-training inspections, its inspectors didn't have the background they needed, the inspection program was flawed and important questions were not asked. For example, FAA inspectors observed more than 2,400 airline-conducted tests of pilot skills, but they didn't ask airlines whether the pilots actually passed the tests, Scovel said.
Scovel also said the FAA missed a self-imposed deadline to propose new pilot fatigue regulations. Pilot fatigue was among the errors cited Tuesday by the NTSB in its investigation of Flight 3407.
The NTSB has urged the FAA for 20 years to update its rules for pilot hours and work days to prevent fatigue, but a previous attempt to create new rules collapsed in the face of disagreements between airlines and pilot unions.
"If past is prologue, the new rule could be years in the making," Scovel said.
Babbitt said his initial timetable for issuing a new pilot fatigue rule was "overly ambitious" and that writing the regulation has turned out to be "incredibly complex."
Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen said carriers are reviewing NTSB's findings and recommendations in the case.