WASHINGTON – A federal pilot records database – aimed at preventing airlines from making hiring mistakes – began to take shape Thursday, seven years after Congress called for such an online resource in aviation safety. The legislation was passed in response to the 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence.
The Federal Aviation Administration released its test version of the pilot records database, which will become the airlines' first one-stop shop for searching federal records on individual pilots.
The agency hopes to eventually include airline records and state driving records in the database, but the test-run version will immediately allow airlines – at the touch of a button – to check federal records that they previously had to get from the FAA on paper.
“This is a common-sense resource that will allow airlines to quickly and easily check the qualifications and background of pilots before they are hired,” said Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican who was serving as Erie County executive at the time of the Flight 3407 crash.
Collins called the release of the database "a reflection of the significant progress that has been made to make sure all pilots are well-trained and fit to fly so that we can keep preventing senseless tragedies.”
Kevin Kuwik, a leading member of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, agreed that the FAA's move would enhance aviation safety.
"This is a really big step," said Kuwik, who discussed the new database in a conference call with FAA officials Thursday. "This will be the first time that airlines are able to electronically access a good chunk of a pilot's records in the hiring process."
If such a database had been in place a decade ago, it's quite possible that Colgan Air – the now-defunct regional airline that operated Flight 3407 – never would have hired Capt. Marvin Renslow, the pilot whose errors resulted in the plane crashing into a home in Clarence.
Renslow failed three federal "check rides" before Colgan hired him, but only told the airline about one of his failures on his job application.
"Had we known what we know now, he would not have been in that seat," Philip H. Trenary, president and chief executive officer of Pinnacle Airlines, owner of Colgan Air, said at an August 2009 Senate hearing on the crash.
Some 50 people died in that February 2009 crash, which happened in large part because of Renslow's incorrect reaction to a stall warning. National Transportation Safety Board investigators found that Renslow did the opposite of what he should have done to correct the plane's course, thereby losing control of the aircraft.
Establishing such a pilot record database was one of the Flight 3407 families' priorities in the aviation safety law they pushed to passage in 2010, but it's the last major piece of the law to start to take shape.
That's because all the other major pieces of the bill – calling for stronger rules on pilot rest, training and experience – gave the FAA deadlines for implementing new regulations.
The pilot records database didn't come with such a deadline, and despite the test version released Thursday, it's still not complete. The FAA is still in the midst of a rulemaking process that's intended to eventually include airline and state driving records in the database.
"We're probably looking at getting that implemented sometime in 2019 if everything were to go the right way," Kuwik said.
Lawmakers who pushed for passage of the Flight 3047 aviation safety legislation unanimously agreed, though, that the FAA's first step will go a long way toward helping airlines hire the best pilots and avoid hiring those with shoddy records.
“This new system will be a useful tool in the recruitment of qualified pilots and is the latest airline safety measure made possible thanks to the tireless efforts of the families whose lives have been forever changed by the crash of Flight 3407,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat from Buffalo.
Through the pilot records database, commercial airlines will be able to see any records that the FAA has regarding pilot performance so long as the pilot approves the release of the information. Airlines previously had to request such information and get it on paper from the FAA after getting that privacy waiver from the pilot.
Now, though, the new database is open to any commercial airline that chooses to use it, allowing for quick access to records that was not readily available before.
“The pilot records database will streamline the hiring process and will be an important tool for maintaining accurate records of pilot training and qualifications," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, who helped push the aviation safety law to passage in 2010. "The Flight 3407 families have long fought to make this database a reality, and I am proud to have worked alongside them to achieve this important step toward making air travel safer for all Americans.”
Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from Corning, agreed.
"The families of the Flight 3407 victims deserve the credit for making the database a reality," he said. "We are proud to support this group and their efforts to make our skies safer for all.”
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Democrat from Fairport, also commended the Flight 3407 families.
"It is because of their advocacy that we passed into law new pilot safety standards and we haven’t seen another fatal regional airline crash since," Slaughter said.