Safety Program Stalled at 3 Airlines

FAA Chief Again Urges Carriers To Fix Conflicts

Delta Air Lines suspended its Aviation Safety Action Program in 2006.
Progress has been slowed by the carrier's recent merger with Northwest. (By Ted S. Warren -- Associated Press)

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 31, 2008; Page D02

A program that allows pilots to voluntarily report safety lapses without the fear of punishment has remained suspended at three big airlines, even after a push this month by acting FAA Administrator Robert A. Sturgell to get it back on track.

Sturgell is trying to break an impasse between US Airways, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines and their respective pilots unions over rules that pilots say could expose them to more disciplinary action. He sent letters this month to union presidents and the carriers' chief executives urging them to resolve their conflicts. On at least one letter, Sturgell scribbled in the margin: "Get this done."

"Both sides need to compromise," Sturgell said in a recent interview. "It's very hard to understand, from my perspective, how a program that has been in place for a decade or more, and providing benefits all along the way, suddenly becomes not a good program."

Some congressmen also are demanding action to restart the programs, known as Aviation Safety Action Programs, or ASAPs. Earlier this week, pilots received a letter from Rep. John L. Mica (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, encouraging the sides to reopen talks.

"The Aviation Safety Action Program is an invaluable tool in protecting the flying public," he wrote. "In fact, every day this matter remains unresolved places the safety of the aviation passengers at risk."

One option floated this week in Washington involved convening a meeting of union leaders and top airline executives, possibly the chief executives themselves, as a way to work through the impasse. Of the three airlines, only US Airways has reported that it is in active talks with pilots to restart the program.

Designed to encourage pilots and other airline employees to voluntarily report safety concerns without the threat of disciplinary action or punishment, American Airlines became the first carrier to institute a safety action program in 1994. Since then the programs have grown to cover dispatchers, flight attendants and air traffic controllers. The FAA currently has 170 agreements in place with 70 air carriers. So far this year, the industry has generated about 50,000 reports, the FAA says.

John Hansman, an aviation professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the programs have become increasingly important to understanding aviation safety, especially given the industry's low accident rate.

"We are actually in a period when the aviation system is incredibly safe," Hansman said. "As a consequence we have to look for what we call accident precursors -- identifying things that are unsafe in the system before they cause accidents."

Conflicts started to arise in recent years as attorneys and safety officials started fighting over the complicated language of the agreements. The pilots' attorneys say the airlines appear to be seeking language that would give airlines greater ability to reject reports.

Union officials have described the programs as priceless because they uncover information that may have never come to light. Some are small, like paperwork abnormalities or training issues. Others draw greater concern such as a pilot landing a plane or crossing a runway without proper clearances.

Under FAA guidelines, inadvertent safety lapses are supposed to be resolved though corrective action rather than through punishment. Pilots say any changes in the agreements' language could leave them exposed to greater risk of disciplinary action.

Tom Westbrook, vice president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents the American Airline pilots, said negotiations are at a stalemate.

"Nothing is going on," Westbrook said. "We have been making statements in every forum we can to get word to them that we are prepared to meet. If they'd agree to stop disciplining pilots for safety events, then we'd sign the agreement."

On the other side, airlines say they are trying to block changes sought by the pilots that they say would unfairly expand pilot immunity.

"We want to achieve protections for our pilots for unintentional acts and unintentional violations," said Billy Nolen, manger of flight safety at American Airlines. "At the same time we want to ensure accountability that if someone commits a willful act, this program doesn't offer them protections."

Disputes also have centered on the handling of individual ASAP reports as well as personality conflicts between individuals involved in the process, including FAA personnel. At Delta, which suspended its program in 2006, progress on new agreements for pilots has been slowed by the carrier's recent merger with Northwest Airlines.

The controversies have forced the FAA into action, even though the agency typically tries to stay clear of airline labor disputes.

"This is a safety issue," Sturgell said. "It should not be treated by anybody as a labor-management issue."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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