The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday made it easier for whistle-blowers to complain to the agency about safety issues, and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said the agency would like to hear from pilots who felt pressured to fly when sick or tired.
Adding to a series of safety initiatives started since the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, the agency created a new Office of Audit and Evaluation to handle safety complaints. Babbitt encouraged any agency or airline employee who sees a safety problem to report it.
"Anytime anything is keeping anybody in the aviation safety chain from speaking up, whether it is fear of reprisal or the fear of punishment, then we've got something wrong," Babbitt said. "We're trying to remove any sort of restraint on people being honest about what they see."
Asked about a recent Buffalo News article in which several pilots from Colgan Air -- which operated Flight 3407 -- said they felt pressured by the airline to fly while sick or fatigued, Babbitt said: "I'd be very curious to know the actual circumstances behind this. I don't know what those circumstances were."
While passing on an opportunity to criticize Colgan and its parent, Pinnacle Airlines, whose pilots complained of similar policies, Babbitt indicated he was concerned about the matter.
"We don't want pilots flying sick," he said. "We don't want pilots flying fatigued. Nor do their companies."
Colgan and Pinnacle have policies under which pilots can be fired for seven "occurrences" of sick time a year, and Babbitt acknowledged that pilots and their bosses likely have strongly different views on such policies.
As for the FAA, Babbitt said, "we don't do industrial policy," leaving such matters as sick time up to the airlines.
"We just want to make sure that no one is going to think their job is in jeopardy" for complaining about any safety issue, he added.
Babbitt's comments came at a media round table where he announced a new round of safety measures, including creation of a new Accident Investigation and Prevention Service designed to put what is learned from plane crashes and other incidents to use in preventing more tragedies.
The FAA, which has long been criticized for ignoring National Transportation Safety Board safety recommendations stemming from accident investigations, needs to put its safety information all in one place to spot trends that could lead to trouble in the future, Babbitt said.
"We want to solve problems before they become accidents," he said.
Babbitt also announced that the agency will no longer refer to the airlines as its "customers."
"I want to make quite sure that as we move forward, we know that when we say 'customer,' we're talking about the flying public," he said. "There's been some confusion in the past."
In addition, Babbitt said his agency is moving forward on new rules for how much pilots can fly and when. A proposed new rule on that matter could be issued within 45 days.
Babbitt announced the plan to draw up new rules on pilot flight time and duty time after the investigation of the Clarence crash showed that the copilot had spent the night before the crash commuting to Newark on an all-night flight from Seattle.
Pilot fatigue and error are two of the central themes the safety board is pursuing as it continues its probe of the crash, which claimed 50 lives.
The crash also prompted the FAA to issue a "Call to Action" to the airlines, seeking their input on safety improvements. Babbitt said the FAA is now sifting through a range of ideas stemming from that effort.
None of that should be read as an indication that U.S. aviation is unsafe, Babbitt said.
"We have a wonderful system, it's incredibly safe, but every now and then you see a little crack in the system somewhere, and you want to address those," Babbitt said.