Transportation Safety Board: Hold pilots accountable to raise professionalism

The National Transportation Safety Board says holding pilots and air traffic controllers accountable for their mistakes will increase professionalism in their ranks.

The NTSB said improving the performance of pilots and controllers should be one of the nation’s 10 most important safety objectives in the coming year. The safety board, which is best known for investigating airplane crashes, began to more formally investigate pilot and controller errors last year.

With errors increasing and the firing of several controllers for sleeping on the job, the NTSB added their record of unprofessional behavior to its annual Most Wanted List of the top 10 critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives.

“Accident after accident there is a very powerful message here,” said board member Robert L. Sumwalt. “When pilots and controllers depart from their training, procedures and best practices, safety margins erode, which can lead to tragedy.”

Sumwalt said the fact that 19 recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration dating to 2005 have not been resolved to the NTSB’s satisfaction indicated a need to “really put the spotlight on this.”

“There’s a lot of visibility” of lack of professionalism, he said. A Southwest Airlines “pilot is sitting there having a conversation with an open mike; there’s Northwest 188, where the pilots overflew Minneapolis-St. Paul; there’s Colgan Air, where the pilots were not paying attention. We’ve got air traffic controllers who are falling asleep. It’s a number of things that have brought this to a head.”

The FAA responded that Administrator Randy Babbitt has made improving professionalism a major focus of his tenure.

“He has traveled around the country, speaking to pilots and air traffic controllers about the need to uphold the highest safety and professional standards at all times,” said FAA spokeswoman Sasha J. Johnson.

Many of the other items on the Most Wanted List had appeared there before.

Drunken driving, teen driving safety and recommendations for mandatory motor coach safety regulations appeared again.

“There are no federal vehicle standards for protecting motor coach occupants,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “Without mandatory safety standards for motor coaches operated in the U.S. we will continue to see serious injuries and those needless fatalities.”

Always controversial, a recommendation for mandatory use of motorcycle helmets also made the list.

“While just 3 percent of the more than 250 million vehicles on the road are motorcycles, motorcyclists represent some 13 percent of highway fatalities,” said Board Vice Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “This year, 13 states have considered weakening their helmet laws. The good news is that seven states are considering strengthening helmet laws.”

The board also recommended improvements for non-commercial aviation, addressing human fatigue that contributes to accidents, requiring data recorders on small planes, trucks and buses, and requiring that transportation system operators have safety management systems.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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