Federal Aviation Administration chief Langhorne Bond said yesterday the agency with begin cracking down more vigorously on pilots and air traffic contrillers who violate air safety regulations.
In a speech to the National Aviation Club here, Bond said the FAA has been hampered in its efforts to enforce safety requirements by a statutory inability to impose adequate sanctions on offenders and by some of its own rules and practices as well.
Despite the best of intentions, he said, the agency has drifted into a system that lets many offenders off the hook. "This is a laxity we can't afford, with a million and a half people in the skies of American on any given day," he said.
Bond's stricter safety enforcement program would require legislation to increase penalties. He said the agency would ask Congress to boost the maximum penalty for each violation of federal aviation regulations to $25,000, up from the $1,000 in force since 1938. The agency will also ask that gross violations be subject to criminal instead of civil penalties.
"A driver who endangers the lives of others by breaking the traffic laws on the highways is punished as a criminal, and I see no reason why a pilot should be treated any differently," Bond said.
Bond also announced that the FAA is removing some of the guarantee of immunity granted violators of safety incidents to the government. This originated in 1976 -- after the crash of a Trans World Airlines plane outside of Dulles Airport -- to encourage pilots, controllers and others to report violations of the rules so that weaknesses in the safety system could be spotted.
A "loophole," however, allows personnel to escape administrative action of any kind provided a timely report is filed, Bond complained. As an example, he cited a recent incident in Spokane when a DC9 attempting to land almost hit a DC10 taking off on the same runway at the same time. Although the DC9 pilot and a tower controller were both in serious error, and the FAA knew about the near collision as soon as it occurred, it was powerless to take any cation because the pilot filed a report.
"The guarnatee of immunity, I'm afraid, can be too easily carrupted into a license to endanger hundreds of lives with no fear of punishment," Bond said.
From now on, Bond said, pilots and controllers won't be able to claim immunity by filing a report if their safety violations have been witnessed by others. Anonymity and immunity are still guaranteed a person submitting a report if the incident has not been withnessed and reported by a third party.
The Air Line Pilots Association yesterday called Bond's immunity change "a major step backward" and contended it would reduce the number of reported air traffic system errors. "If that's the result desired by the FAA, then the bureaucracy must have a reason for wanting to hide potential air disasters in the bureaucratic closet," said Capt. John J. O'Donnell, president of ALPA.
Bond disagred. "This is trying to throw the closet open, for heaven's sake," he told reporters. Although conceding that fewer air mistakes may be reported, he added, "What is the data being gathered for if you can't take enforcement actions?"