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FAA opens a door Portal for whistleblower complaints should help improve airline safety

The Federal Aviation Administration took a small but needed step the other day by making it easier for whistleblowers to complain to the agency about safety issues. Lives are at stake, as the crash of Flight 3407 painfully proved, and creating an open atmosphere in which people with insights feel free to complain and suggest is critical.

The administration has created a new Office of Audit and Evaluation specifically to take care of safety complaints. FAA chief Randy Babbitt has made it clear that any agency or airline employee should feel comfortable in stepping forward.

Taken together with safety initiatives, this move is a good indication that the FAA has begun a new way of relating to travel issues, making it clear that the public is to be placed first in the order of priorities. No longer will the agency refer to the airlines as its "customers." Instead, the flying public will be referred to as the "customer."

The FAA is responding to a well-deserved criticism. The Feb. 12 crash of Continental Connection Fight 3047 in Clarence has been a wake-up call for both the FAA and the flying public. It must be more than a wake-up call to the industry; it must trigger action.

Prior to that tragic event, many of us were unaware of the sometimes harsh conditions under which pilots were made to work, including having to fly despite a lack of sleep, illness or other reasons that legitimately would cause concern.

Far from feeling free to complain, several pilots from Colgan Air, which operated Flight 3407, said they felt pressured to fly while sick or fatigued. Pilots working for Colgan's parent, Pinnacle airlines, made similar complaints.

Babbitt demonstrated a reluctance to comment until finding out the actual circumstances, and that's understandable. But the evidence is damning.

Federal investigators found that the co-pilot of the plane that crashed in Clarence, Rebecca L. Shaw, had flown a connecting redeye flight cross-country to get to her East Coast assignment, and had a cold before reporting to work. That's just one specific instance, but pilots are saying similar stories are not uncommon. That kind of complaint should be aired before a tragedy, not after it -- and it's a reason the new office is needed.

What should end are policies, such as the one both Colgan and Pinnacle are said to have been operating under, that call for pilots to be fired for seven "occurrences" of sick time a year. Many of us, either with our own or family members' health matters, would easily fail such a test. The airlines deny that their policies are punitive or unfair, but complaints like this demand exploring -- and the new office would provide a starting point for such explorations.

Babbitt may have a point in noting that the FAA doesn't "do industrial policy," instead leaving matters such as sick time up to the airlines, but it's clear that an atmosphere in which pilots fear for their jobs if they call in sick is, in and of itself, unhealthy.

This latest round of safety measures is welcome and long overdue. It includes the creation of a new Accident Investigation and Prevention Service that will put to use what is learned from plane crashes and other incidents, with the obvious goal of preventing more tragedies.

The point is to not repeat mistakes of the past. It's a hard lesson and it has come at a tragically high cost.

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