The Subcommittee on Aviation, chaired by U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), held a hearing this morning to review the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) safety oversight of the United States' aviation system.
Although the U.S. aviation system is the safest in the world, the Committee continues its strong oversight of safety in order to help ensure continued improvement. This morning's hearing focused on reviews by the Department of Transportation Inspector General (DOT IG) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on operational errors, pilot fatigue and pilot training requirements, safety management systems, oversight of repair stations, and terminal area safety.
"As we have noted many times in the past, the United States aviation system is the safest in the world," said Chairman Petri. "On any given day the FAA's air traffic controllers will handle over 28,500 commercial flights. In 2011, there were no commercial passenger airline fatalities. Over the past five years, roughly 52 million passenger flights were operated safely. This high level of safety is the result of collaborative efforts by the FAA, Congress, industry and other stakeholders. But we must not forget the one tragic fatal commercial accident during those five years, and we have taken steps with the passage of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 to address the identified weaknesses that contributed to that tragedy.
"While the U.S. aviation system enjoys a high level of safety, there are areas in which safety can be improved," continued Chairman Petri. "The Government Accountability Office and the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation have conducted audits and studies to assess the FAA's safety oversight role in a variety of areas.
"It is our responsibility, regardless of how safe the system is, to conduct oversight to address any possible safety issues that may be present or arise in the future," Petri concluded.
Full Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) added, "Fortunately, large commercial airlines have had an incredible safety record in recent years. However, we can never assume this record will continue. Congress finally passed an FAA bill after five years of delay. While Congress did act during that time to also improve commuter airline safety, passing this new long-term safety law was critical for this agency, which was in turmoil and had no guiding policy blueprint during those years of short term extensions."
Gerald Dillingham, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, GAO, testified: "The last fatal commercial aviation accident occurred in Buffalo, New York, on February 12, 2009, when 50 people perished in a Colgan Air crash. In response to this accident, and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) findings that pilot training and lack of qualifications were potentially contributing factors, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began a Call to Action Plan in June 2009 to, among other things, increase air carrier participation in voluntary safety programs. In 2010, Congress passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act (Airline Safety Act), which, in part, called for FAA to better manage safety risks. As a result, FAA developed a concerted strategy to implement new safety programs required by the Airline Safety Act, including establishing better processes for managing safety risks and advancing Safety Management Systems (SMS).
"While FAA is diligently working to improve its [safety] data in some instances, more work remains to address limitations and to collect additional data where necessary," Dillingham continued.
Jeffrey Guzzetti, Assistant Inspector General for Aviation and Special Programs, U.S. DOT IG, added: "FAA is taking important steps to improve safety, such as implementing voluntary safety reporting for controllers, but the agency has not yet realized the full benefit of these efforts. While enhanced reporting has yielded important data on safety issues like operational errors and runway incursions, FAA will need to ensure that the data are accurate, comprehensive, and effectively analyzed to better identify baselines and safety trends.
"FAA officials assert that the increase [of operational errors] is likely due to improved reporting practices," Guzzetti continued. "Specifically FAA believes that the introduction of voluntary, non-punitive safety reporting programs- such as the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP)- has encouraged controllers to voluntarily report operational errors. However, our ongoing work has found no evidence to Support FAA's assertion that ATSAP is the primary contributor to the rise in operational errors."