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Editorial: Seven years after 3407, FAA is finally rolling out pilot database

It’s unfortunate that something so valuable and doable took seven years to implement, but the good news is that an effort to improve air safety is finally being implemented. The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday released a test version of a database that will give airlines easy access to the federal records of individual pilots.

Here’s the importance of that database: Had it been available a decade ago, when Colgan Airlines was considering whether to hire Marvin Renslow as a pilot, it would have seen that he failed three federal “check rides,” not just the one he acknowledged on his application. But the airline did hire Renslow, and his catastrophic inflight errors caused the crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence Center almost nine years ago. Fifty people died, including everyone on the airplane and one man on the ground.

All good decision-making starts with good information. Colgan Air, now defunct, didn’t have it. Going forward, all airlines will have access to basic data on the flying records of pilots they are interviewing. It’s a crucial and common-sense project. While flight safety has dramatically improved over recent decades, this project is all but certain to save lives.

Congress called for creation of the database seven years ago as part of the airline safety law it passed in the aftermath of the Flight 3407 disaster. The delay in producing even a test version traces back to a fact of human nature: Congress gave the FAA deadlines on other critical aspects of the bill, including pilot training, but none on the database. Because it was easy to put off, it was.

But it’s underway and this is only the beginning of the rollout. It could take another two years to complete the rule-making process that will eventually expand the database’s value by including airline and state driving records.

Credit for this law, as with the entire federal response to the crash, goes in large part to the loved ones of those killed in the crash. The Families of Continental Flight 3407 was formed to wring something useful out of the disaster. Credit also goes to the entire Western New York congressional delegation and its U.S. senators, all of whom worked diligently to produce the air safety legislation that was approved in 2010.

We presume the airline industry won’t carp about this aspect of the law as it has about previous ones. It has complained incessantly about pilot training requirements, insisting that they are too onerous. Yet the airplanes continue to fly.

The law was a comprehensive response to the dangerous practices that were revealed in the investigation of the crash. It dealt not only with pilot training and the database, but with issues including pilot fatigue and experience.

For example, NTSB investigators found that Flight 3407’s first officer, Rebecca L. Shaw, had flown overnight to secure a free flight from Seattle to Memphis and finally to Newark, where the ill-fated flight to Buffalo originated. That was her cost-cutting solution to her airline income of $23,900 a year. The industry was “winking and nodding” at the long-standing issue of pilot fatigue, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said at the time of the investigation.

Thus, the new law requires at least 10 hours of rest for pilots and copilots. Those officers are also required to have 1,500 hours of flying experience, up from just 250 hours.

It’s important to note that the industry that was paying Shaw $23,900 a year is the one crying about the new flight training rules and blaming them for a pilot shortage. Others, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer, say the shortage it due to the retirement of baby boomer pilots. Regardless, higher salaries and slightly higher ticket prices would do much to solve any of these problems without compromising flight safety.

Those aspects of the law challenged the industry to do better. It did not cover itself in glory. The database, on the other hand, is a gift that will help it to hire better pilots and to reassure that public that flight safety remains a priority.

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