FAA chief defends agency's modus operandi

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Regional Airline Association president Faye Malarkey Black (right) interviewed FAA acting administrator Dan Elwell at the RAA conference. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell on Tuesday defended the federal agency against recent allegations of lax oversight. 

"It's not kinder and gentler, it's smarter," Elwell said during a question-and-answer session at the Regional Airline Association Annual Conference here. 

In April, the FAA was a target of a scathing "60 Minutes" report that accused it of being too cozy with Allegiant and too tolerant of series of Allegiant mechanical issues. 

Subsequently, the DOT's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has begun a series of audits into FAA oversight. The OIG is auditing the FAA's maintenance oversight of Allegiant, Southwest and American, and its oversight of aircraft evacuation procedures. 

In July, the OIG found that the FAA lacks adequate safeguards to properly oversee and respond to complaints about flight-test programs that airlines are required to conduct on aircraft that have undergone major repairs or maintenance. As a result, the FAA has agreed to an OIG-recommended course of action designed to resolve the problem.

Responding to questions Tuesday from RAA president Faye Malarkey Black, Elwell said the agency has shifted its approach more toward achieving compliance from airlines and less toward punitive action over the course of decades. 

Such a strategy, he said, has made sense, since commercial airline crashes are far less frequent than they were decades ago. As a result, the agency could no longer wait around for crashes, and then use forensic analysis to learn how safeguards needed to be enhanced. 

Instead, the FAA has shifted toward being proactive in its safety oversight, he said, and that means working more closely with the airlines to get data. 

"You get data by telling airlines, 'Tell us what happened, and we can fix it together,'" Elwell said. 

The FAA administrator also said that he's open to creating more exceptions to the controversial 1,500-hour training requirement for pilots, if data shows that alternative training programs would be more effective. 

Under regulations that took effect in 2013, pilot trainees typically must amass 1,500 hours of flying to obtain a license to fly commercial aircraft. Exceptions are allowed for military pilots, who must have 750 hours; graduates of qualified bachelor's degree aviation programs, who must fly 1,000 hours; and graduates of qualified associate's degree aviation programs, who must have 1,250 hours.

Those rules, however, have become a focus of sharp political debate due to the pilot shortage that has plagued regional U.S. airlines, causing flight cancellations, bankruptcies and airline closures.  

According to the University of North Dakota's 2016 Pilot Supply Forecast, the U.S. faces a looming shortage of 3,500 commercial pilots by 2020. 

The Regional Airline Association and other stakeholders have called for alternatives to the 1,500-hour rule and have said that targeted training, including more work in flight simulators, can be more effective than merely requiring lots of flight hours.

But reforms to the 1,500-hour rule have been consistently opposed on safety grounds by the Air Line Pilots Association union and by the relatives of the 49 people who perished on Colgan Air's Flight 3407, which crashed into a house on approach to Buffalo Niagara Airport in 2009, killing all 49 passengers and crew as well as one person on the ground.

Elwell said that he spoke with the Colgan families last month during an aviation workforce symposium the agency held. 

"I told them that safety has never been static and our efforts with safety have never been static," he said.

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