FAA, pilots agree: air safety still needs improvement

Though 1980 stands as one of the safest years ever in aviation history, the nation's pilots and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) both agree that the skies could be made still safer.

What they do not agree on is exactly how to accomplish it.

In a planning report, the FAA has recommended that $16 billion be set aside over the next decade for safety-related airport and FAA equipment improvements.

The agency notes that much of the present equipment, from radar to communications gear, is rapidly becoming outdated just as sky traffic is on the increase. Part of the FAA plan includes a start on replacing the ground computer network on which air traffic controllers rely.

The system has come under sharp attack from controllers and some on Capitol Hill for its frequent breakdowns. Although the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is listening to the agency's plea for funds, FAA sources concede that only a slight increase is likely in the roughly $400 million a year the watchdog agency has been getting for capital improvement projects.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), while generally applauding the bid for more federal dollars to improve equipment, argues that the FAA and the Carter administration in particular have been "arrogant" in ignoring pilot input in safety regulations.To underscore their plea that their technical expertise be given more weight and that the Reagan administration make air safety issues a top priority, the pilot group plans a one-day shutdown of service in late February or early March.

Particularly galling to pilots, says ALPA Chicago spokesman Dale Dopkins, an airline captain, is the fact that they have been "systematically excluded" by the FAA from the certification process for new airplace designs. He says the agency tends to rely almost totally on the manufacturer's equipment, pesonnel, and testing data in that decision.

Last spring, an 18-month investigation drew a similar conclusion and urged the FAA to open up the certification process to qualified third parties and to "police" the system more effectively.

ALPA would also like to see more attention paid to its longtime plea for an in-plane collision-avoidance system of some kind. The FAA, which critics feel has been dragging its feet on a solution to the "near miss" problem, prefers to tackle it by improvements in the ground control system. Pilots want an airborne device in case radar and ground computers fail.

Washington ALPA spokesman John Mazor notes that the two issues are part of a long list of safety concerns that pilots have been drawing up over several years.

Some observers are paying particular heed to the pilots' charges that the FAA has tended to ignore ALPA input because the agency was the target of several major critical reports last year. These include a study by a National REsearch Council panel chiding the agency for a lack of in-house technical expertise and a General Accounting Office report which accused the FAA of having no overall progam on safety issues and of failure to adequately identify safety hazards.

"These reports are good, hard pieces of evidence that what we've been saying all along is true," insists Mr. Mazor of ALPA.

"I think the pilots have a legitimate gripe on collision avoidance -- the FAA has been working on an answer to that problem for the last 25 years and there's no workable system in sight until the late 1980s," says Matthew Finucane, staff attorney for the Aviation Consumer Action Project in Washington. "And on the certification issue, the House subcommittee study accused the FAA of acting as a 'management consultant' for the industry. . . . Our view is that the FAA could at least listen to the pilot's suggestions in this field. They have a lot of expertise to offer."

Spokesmen for the FAA argue that the agency has paid attention to the pilot concerns but that evidence has not surfaced to support their views: Pointing to pilot criticism of the agency's proposals to increase pilot flight time and to give the FAA virtually unlimited access to the cockpit voice recorder, FAA sources say it is really pilot control which is at issue.

An FAA spokesman suggests, for instance, that the key concern pilots in wanting to be involved in the certification process is to assure that a crew of three pilots -- rather than two -- man the cockpits of larger new aircraft. When the agency moved last year under the manufacturer's suggestion to certify the new DC-9 Super 80 with two pilots, ALPA filed suit, contending that safety, not featherbedding, was at issue.

ALPA admits to concern on crew size, since Boeing plans to produce two other large aircraft in the next few years and will also recommend a two-man crew. But ALPA's Mazor insists that the number of pilots at the helm is a "sub-issue" on certification and that the pilot group would abide by any decision "objectively" reached.

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