We Can’t Regulate Professionalism

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 — David Evans

Articles, Featured

By Randy Babbitt

Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

Captain Babbitt became the sixteenth administrator on June 1. He began his aviation career as a pilot, flying 25 years for Eastern Air Lines. He later served as president of ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association) and promoted the international expansion of ALPA through a merger in 1997 with the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association.

Capt. Randy Babbitt, new FAA administrator

Capt. Randy Babbitt, new FAA administrator

Remarks to ALPA annual safety symposium in Washington, DC (extracts), 5 August 2009:


I’d like to make a few observations. The first is something we all know, but amidst the congressional oversight, and the Inspector General, and the OMB [Office of Management and Budget], the New York Times, USA Today, Katie Couric [CBS News] and Brian Williams [NBC News] – and the guy in first class who’s just furious that you are second in line [for take off] and you’ve been waiting 20 minutes – it’s pretty easy to forget the most major point of all:

“We Cannot Regulate Professionalism.”

No matter how many rules, regulations, advisories, mandatory training session, voluntary training sessions – pull them all together, and it still comes down to us – and by us, I mean every pilot.

Each of us has a responsibility here. We know as professionals that it’s up to us to earn respect and operate professionally. The tools are already out there for us to improve our performance as professionals. But your chief pilot can’t make you use them. The aviation safety inspector and the check airman can’t make you use them. I can’t make you use them. Only you and you alone can ensure that the tools are used properly.

If you haven’t read the transcript of the CVR [cockpit voice recorder] for the Colgan accident, I’d encourage you to do so. [See Air Safety Journal, ‘Crash Investigation Reveals Gaps in Airline Safety System’ and ‘Cockpit Discipline Essential to Safety, Declares Safety Board Member’] The professionalism of the flight crew has been raised as an issue – and this isn’t the first time. We’ve got to put a stop to that. The accidents we’ve seen, and the call to action I’ve made all have the crying need for refocus on professionalism running through them.

I’m not saying that pilots as a group are unprofessional. Quite the contrary. I am saying that this is a time for veterans to take the extra effort to mentor the pilots coming up through the ranks to ensure we maintain the highest levels of professionalism. This not only deals with safety, but with the need for you to help the new pilots learn how to react and adapt to change.

Let’s face it, for a number of us who came up back in the day, you couldn’t find an airplane with someone in the left seat [co-pilot’s position] with less than 10 years experience. And those captains may as well have been carrying stone tablets down from the mountain. If they said it, you did it, and that was all there was to it. In fact, most of us apprenticed as Flight Engineers and spent a few years watching both flying pilots – valuable experience for sure.

Not today. There are some airlines out there with senior pilots who have three years under their belt and, unlike back then, they are going right into jet, flying long days in some of the busiest airspace in the world. I’m not saying that you’ve got to have 10 or 15 thousand hours before you’re worth your salt, but there is something to be said for having been flying around the system a few seasons.

And just having experience isn’t enough. The people with the experience need to make sure they’re mentoring the ones who don’t have it. This needs to become part of our professional DNA [genetic code]. If you’ve got experience and you’re not sharing it, you’re doing a disservice to our profession. This is not the time to be a man or woman of few words. The new ones need to hear from you. This is about safety, and safety is about saving lives.

Right now, there’s a rulemaking committee studying fatigue. That’s a big issue for all of us. The timeline is 45 days for a notice of proposed rulemaking [NPRM]. That brings us to September 1. We vet it inside the FAA first, then ship it to DOT [Department of Transportation], which should turn it around in less than 90 days, then the NPRM is on its way to OMB. The proposed rule will then go out for public comment. By the way, I’ve requested both DOT and OMB to expedite this one.

Why does it take so long? Well, rulemaking is a deliberative process, and it’s slow by design. The last thing we want is a knee-jerk rule that doesn’t answer the mail. I can tell you that the committee is giving the issue a good, hard look. As an example, here’ a question for you: Which pilot deals with more fatigue – the person who does Detroit to Narita [Japan] at night, with rest opportunities and bunks, or the pilot who has eight takeoffs and landings in one duty period and the weather never gets better than 400 and 1 – and all without leaving the East Coast?

That’s why I convened the rulemaking committee. I want to make sure that we get the answers we need as working men and women aviators. In rulemaking, not only does one size not fit all, but it’s unsafe to think that it can.

The early look at flight and duty time so far is progressing well. They are also looking at the subject of fatigue science to determine some different hourly limitations based upon scientific data. They have presented philosophical concepts of flight time, duty and rest limitations, including definitions of rest, duty, fatigue, captain’s authority and reserve. Scientists who specialize in fatigue have made presentations about sleep opportunities, circadian rhythms and potential scheduling.

Regarding regional [airline] safety, we’re holding a series of 12 nationwide airline safety forums. That started on July 21. The goal is to stimulate a safer, more professional environment at regional airlines. I’m pleased to report that airlines and [pilot] unions are responding positively to the call. The meetings will contine through August in places like DFW [Dallas-Ft. Worth], Chicago, Seattle, the Twin Cities, Atlanta, Anchorage, Miami, Denver, St. Louis, Las Vegas and Boston.

The discussions are focusing on air carrier management responsibilities for crew education and support, professional standards, flight discipline, training standards and performance. As you’d expect, mentoring and “experience transfer” comes up quite a bit.

We plan to collect the best practices and innovative ideas. I’ll be sharing that information with airlines and unions. But the bottom line is that I’m looking to all of the participants to make commitments to ratchet up their approach to excellence.

I can’t say this any more directly than I am right now: We all have to take on additional responsibilities whether we’re legally required to or not …

Recently, I spoke to the Delta [Air Lines] MEC [Master Executive Council], and in the Q&A, a pilot told me not to set the bar too low for start ups [new carriers]. Let me repeat now what I said then. I absolutely agree. We’re working to revise the training rules. In fact, we’re working in several other areas, including exploring raising requirements higher to fly First Officer in a multi-pilot crew operation.

I might not be in the cockpit every day, but that’s still me perspective. Safety is what got me there, and my goal as FAA administrator is to make sure that safety is paramount in everything we say and every thing we do. I will leave you with this: If you think the safety bar is set too high, your sights are set way too low. It’s time for you to step up. That’s the only way we can reach the next level of safety.

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