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With new in-flight rules, 2010 law advances, though database remains undone

Pilots must exercise professionalism while on duty to ensure the safety of passengers.

It’s an observation that should have been unnecessary to make, let alone codify. But the fact remains that tragedy can occur – and has – when a lack of professionalism among pilots and co-pilots plays out thousands of feet in the air. New rules should help.

The worst example of this – at least locally and possibly ever – occurred in the February 2009 crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence. In that tragedy, which claimed 50 lives including one on the ground, cockpit recordings showed the pilot and co-pilot chatting about “topics that had nothing to do with the flight,” as investigators determined. That violated protocol. The recording also indicated that co-pilot Rebecca Shaw was yawning. Shaw had flown from her home near Seattle to make the flight out of Newark, N.J., and had also been feeling ill.

These are not new revelations. They have been reported in these pages by News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski, whose coverage highlighted the selfless and tireless efforts of Families of Continental Flight 3407 to advocate for airline safety legislation in 2010.

What is new – and overdue – are regulations the Federal Aviation Administration just finalized and announced: Starting in April, commercial airline pilots must undergo leadership and command training, in addition to instruction in how to mentor co-pilots. That’s a key component of creating a culture of cockpit professionalism.

In addition, newly hired pilots will be required to watch flight operations and learn their airline’s procedures “inside and out” before entering the cockpit. Flight Captain Marvin Renslow did not know his plane when he took the exact wrong action during a stall and brought on the crash.

Such measures should have been in place long ago. It may not have had any effect on the tragic crash here more than a decade ago, given other inexcusable factors. But it’s hard to believe that it took so long for the FAA to implement a rule that should always have been in place, anyway.

Worse has been the inexcusable delay in creating a pilot database that would allow airlines to identify job applicants with “shoddy” flight records and avoid hiring them. Such a tool almost certainly would have kept Renslow out of Flight 3407’s cockpit. He failed three pilot tests, known as check-rides.

The database is moving ahead, finally, but computers and databases are commonplace. This shouldn’t have been that hard to implement.

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