5 March 2010
The Honorable Al Franken
320 Hart Senate Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator Franken:
I am writing to you in regard to Senate Bill S.3048, recently introduced by Senator DeMint. As an airline captain and professional pilot with 16 years of flying experience, I have very grave reservations concerning this bill's impact on aviation safety, should it become law. These concerns are hardly mine alone: much of the aviation industry is united in opposition to this bill, including airline pilots, aviation safety organizations, many airline managers, and the entirety of the airline labor movement. The only aviation organization that has spoken in favor of this bill is the Regional Airline Association, which has been fervently attempting to deflect public attention from deficiencies in the regional airline industry exposed by the tragedy of Colgan 3407 for many months now.
The introduction of S.3048 appears to be a response to a recent recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board that Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVRs) be made accessible to and regularly reviewed by independent safety experts to ensure that airline pilots are complying with standard operating procedures and Federal Aviation Regulations, particularly those regarding sterile cockpit. This recommendation was made within the framework of the existing Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) program, which uses Flight Data Recorder (FDR) data in much the same manner. A major cornerstone of the FOQA program is the anonymity of the data derived from it; there are multiple layers of protections in place to ensure that nobody but an independent "gatekeeper" knows the identity of the crews involved. Thanks to these protections, the data can be freely shared between management, union volunteers, line pilots, and FAA overseers. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and other pilot unions were heavily involved in the development and implementation of FOQA, and have provided critical support for what would have been a very controversial program without the necessary protections for pilots.
As a result, FOQA has been a resounding success. After 90 years of reacting to crashes, the aviation community finally has a tool that allows it to proactively address negative trends before they result in tragedy. These include not only pilot errors but also unsafe procedures and inadequate systems and facilities. The main problem with expanding FOQA to include CVR data is that the very nature of a voice recording undermines the confidentiality of the program. Another is the element of ambiguity usually present in such recordings; even in the context of accident investigation, the NTSB begins all CVR transcripts with a warning that "the transcription of a cockpit voice recorder audio recording is not a precise science but is the best product possible from a Safety Board group investigative effort." These problems are not insurmountable; given the potential to enhance FOQA and increase safety, it's likely they could be overcome in time through the sort of close cooperation between management, unions, and the FAA that launched FOQA in the first place.
Senate Bill S.3048, on the other hand, does not enhance the usefulness of FOQA but completely destroys its very basis. The bill calls for both FDR and CVR data to be completely accessible to airline management and FAA personnel at any time, without any of the protections of FOQA. Indeed, the lack of such protections is the very point of the bill: it specifically calls for airlines to use the data to discipline or discharge pilots, evaluate and monitor the judgment and performance of pilots, and justify or require pilots to submit to unscheduled proficiency checks. It does nothing to address the ambiguities inherent to FDR and CVR data. This is not some small distinction from what the NTSB recommended; it is entirely against the spirit of their recommendation. In fact, S.3048 strikes at the very foundation of a safety culture that has been carefully cultivated through so much painstaking work over the last 20 years. Whether it be FOQA or the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) or Line Oriented Safety Audit (LOSA), the foundation of every successful aviation safety program over the last decade has been the open participation of line pilots in a non-punitive environment. This has been a revolution in aviation safety, with results that speak for themselves; the proposed Senate bill sweeps all that away like so much detritus.
As a captain for Minnesota-based [redacted] Airlines, my performance is already evaluated on a regular basis. I am given comprehensive checkrides in a flight simulator every six months, and a check airman sits in on regular line flights at least once a year. The high level of skill and professionalism I exhibit during these events is the same that I bring to every one of my regular line flights, and the same is true of the other crew members I fly with. The one difference I notice during checkrides is that we tend to be much less vocal. I do not mean this in a chit-chat sort of way; I mean that on a regular line flight, when one of us makes a small mistake or deviation from procedures, the other is generally quite quick to point it out. This openness is the result of a painstakingly cultivated safety culture where all participants know they can speak freely without fear of repercussions. On checkrides and line checks, however, our jobs are potentially in jeopardy, and I've noticed that the result is that crew members are much less likely to point out an error on the others part, as this will highlight the error for an evaluator who may not have otherwise noticed it. The practical effect of Senate Bill S.3048 is to make every flight a checkride, with the attendant stifling of the free flow of communication. It takes aviation safety backward 30 years, when airliners regularly crashed with at least one crew member fully aware that something was not right, but was afraid to speak up.
I have been flying since I was 13 years old. Aviation is not just my career, it is my life. I take my responsibilities as a Captain with the utmost seriousness, and have a deep commitment to the safety of my passengers. As the person responsible for the lives of those entrusted to my care, safety takes precedence over my own comfort or convenience, my airline's financial interests, over my very career. I therefore cannot in good conscience continue in this role under the conditions proposed by Senate Bill S.3048. I have drafted my letter of resignation and will submit it in the event that this bill becomes law. I have talked to other pilots - true professionals all - who intend to do the same. It is my fervent hope that such measures will be rendered unnecessary. Therefore, I ask for you to stand with us in opposition to S.3048.
If there is any way I can be of assistance to you or your staff in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me at the address above, by emailing [redacted], or by calling [redacted]. If you desire it, I would be pleased to meet with you at a time and place of your convenience. Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.
5 March 2010
Chief Pilot, [redacted] Airlines
Dear Captain [redacted]:
This letter will serve as notice that I intend to resign my position as a captain with [redacted] Airlines effective two weeks from the date of receipt. This notice will only be in effect if the bill currently known as S.3048, the "Pilot Professionalism Assurance Act," becomes the law of the United States of America. The law as currently proposed is a serious detriment to aviation safety, and I cannot in good conscience continue to serve as a captain under its provisions.
I intend to give this notice to my ALPA representative, [redacted], upon the bills passage from the Senate. He is under instructions to safeguard the letter and otherwise use it as he or his successor sees fit until S.3048 becomes law, at which point he is instructed to give it to you, thereby tendering my resignation. If S.3048 is defeated or substantially changed so that CVR and FDR data may not be used punitively against individual pilots, Mr. [redacted] or his successor are under instructions to destroy this letter.