By Andy Pasztor
January 21, 2011
U.S. aviation regulators, seeking to enhance the safety of some 1,600 charter airlines and air-taxi companies, issued a final rule Thursday requiring pilots of such planes to receive specialized training to work more effectively as cockpit teams.
In announcing the regulation – long sought by independent safety experts and government crash investigators – the Federal Aviation Administration said the goal “is to reduce the frequency and severity of errors” by pilots of both helicopters and airplanes conducting charter, sightseeing and other nonscheduled flights.
The rules parallel specialized team-training requirements, dubbed crew resource management, that have been integral parts of larger airline-safety practices since the late 1990s.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been advocating such training requirements for this segment of the industry since 2003. The FAA proposed such changes in May 2009.
Companies will have two years to create enhanced pilot-training systems, though individual operators will have wide latitude to determine their duration and focus.
In general, the FAA believes the new training should help reduce human errors that can result in runway or midair collisions, loss of altitude awareness and other frequent safety threats.
According to the FAA, the goal is to improve pilot decision-making, reduce stress and make cockpit crews more aware of the hazards of fatigue. More than 24,000 pilots are expected to be affected.
In justifying the regulation, the agency said that it analyzed a total of 24 accidents primarily caused by pilots of charter and on-demand passenger planes and helicopters from 1997 to 2008, resulting in 83 fatalities. Based on the FAA’s assessment of how the new rules would have improved safety during that same period, agency officials concluded that 20 lives would have been saved.
The regulation as originally proposed in 2009 exempted certain Alaskan operators and more-experienced pilots across the U.S. from upgraded training requirements. But Thursday’s final rule is mandatory and applies to all pilots flying nonscheduled trips.
The FAA’s analysis showed that among scheduled U.S. airlines, such team-training concepts helped produce a 25% drop in fatal accidents caused primarily by pilot error.
“A crew that works as a team is a better crew, regardless of the size of the plane or the size of the airline,” according to FAA chief Randy Babbitt.
Mandatory team-training will become a routine part of periodic ground-school and simulator sessions for practically all pilots of commercial passenger flights. Currently, the FAA said a total of about two dozen large U.S. charter and on-demand operators already provide enhanced crew training.
In the end, the FAA opted to require additional training even for companies relying on single-pilot flights. In those cases, the rule mandates closer coordination between individual pilots, dispatchers and other aviation professionals.