Friday, March 05, 2010

Two Letters

[address redacted]

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.

Sincerely,

Captain [redacted]
Minneapolis, MN

**********

[address redacted]

5 March 2010

Captain [redacted]
Chief Pilot, [redacted] Airlines
[address redacted]

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.

Sincerely,

Captain [redacted]

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sam, in the event you do resign, what will you do for work? Something else in aviation? Change to a different field?

amulbunny said...

Bravo. Too much government interference, from the cockpit to the backscatter images being forced upon the flying public.

Greybeard said...

Nail. Head.
Is our government actively trying to destroy the aviation industry?

Security lines at airports, already too damn long, will only increase with the implementation of these new scanners. I suspect we'll see a large percentage of folks refuse to be "scanned" by said machines, thereby forcing some TSA agent to "hand wand" that portion of the folks waiting to board. These machines cost what? And tell me again... who's paying for them?
(And when terrorists find which airports have them and which don't, they'll simply plan their ops. from the "don't" airports, won't they?)

In my 42 years of flying I have watched as the FAA has morphed from a group of experienced, former civilian aviators who had worked "the line" with companies that had to make a buck in order to keep the doors open, to the FAA of today... guys who may have never worked outside some government agency, and therefore have no idea that replacing something like an attitude gyro in a helicopter can cost $10,000 or more. This same FAA guy can then come insist I shoot my approach to landing at a speed that will eliminate my ability to use the "twin-engine safety" that was the reason my company bought this specific helicopter in the first place. (My wife has now stored written instructions on which lawyer to employ and which of the factory pilots to use as "experts" when she sues the FAA because my approach was made at a speed that hung me excessively in the "Deadman's curve".

I truly wish I could see an end to this madness, but I don't.

Nicole said...

I appreciate your willingness to step up on this matter, and do more than just click a box on an online survey like most people in opposition. I pray that Senate Bill S.3048 will be stricken. I hate to see the shift a bill like this would affect aviation in the US.

Ken said...

So what do you guys get up to, behind your bolted, kevlar-reinforced, flight deck doors that you don't want your management to know about?

CVRs only record the last 2 hours of conversation, then the data gets overwritten. FDR don't record voice, only flight data.

Resigning if this becomes law seems a bit over the top, IMHO.

Mark Richards said...

I've very much wanted to resign the country over the past 10 years when one assault on freedoms and sanity after another were visited on us.

Taking such a principled stand is good. I hope, however, that you consider how much greater good one can do by staying with something and perhaps bugging the hell out of it until it is no longer tenable.

America has yet to reach the no longer tenable point (although close). As to meddling with the airline industry, hopefully the reactionary (and dumb) congress will listen to your very wise words.

David said...

Sam,

As a regular subscriber to your blog and fan of your work as well as a first officer on the JungleBus for a different midwestern carrier, I couldn't agree more with your letters. I am curious to find out if you are comfortable with me using some of the text in your letter in drafting one to my State officials as well.

This has gone too far and the kneejerk reactions to please the most vocal constituents who fail to see any side of the story but their own is becoming insurmountable...UNLESS we all take a stand.

As for the comment above regarding CVRs only recording 2 hours, it's hard to believe that in an era of such technology that even "deleting" files from your computer doesn't really and truly "delete" them that CVR data could be pulled from quite further back than some arbitrary limit. In actuality, the fact that the public thinks that we, as airline pilots, have something to hide misses the entire point. That point, as Sam has elegantly illustrated is that it stifles the ability to have free conversation regarding the safety of flight. Instead, it further encourages the flightdeck crewmembers to keep their mouths shut so as to avoid "tipping anyone off." You can argue that this isn't the mark of a true professional, and I'd certainly tend to agree with you, but the fact of the matter stands, many an airline crash have resulted from true professionals failing to speak up.

My $.02,
David

SimPilot264 said...

Sam,

Well said, I respect your stand on this.

Being an inmate of the European (Bureaucratic) Union I am not fully upto speed on the specific details of 3048, though I have read some articles on AvWeek and FlightGlobal. I have a couple of questions that, in the context of your position, you may not wish to answer. I will respect that view.

Q1. Will this legislation apply to smaller scheduled air-taxi type operations using an aircraft upto, say, C208 size but operating under Pt 135, or just to aircraft that have CVR(s) as standard fit, e.g., SAAB 340/2000 upwards operating under Pt 121? - I think I have those the right way around.

Q2. What about those commercial scheduled flights operated by foreign carriers operating to, or over, US airspace, e.g., Air Canada flying from Toronto to Orlando or Halifax to Montego Bay; will they be subject to the proposed legislation?

2a. And code share fights e.g., "Windmill Airlines" flying from Amsterdam to Detroit with both Windmill and Widget flight numbers?

Q3. You referred to every flight potentially being a "check ride" - could this effectively be the end of CRM, or whatever the current flavor acronym is?

I'm not a professional aviator though I do have P2 time in military jet training aircraft - not fitted with a CVR - and flew as part of a "crew of two", i.e., I took part in the flight brief and de-briefs; made certain switch selections under instruction and supervision to ensure the safe operation on the aircraft; kept a lookout on my side of the aircraft that was out of the P1 normal line of sight - the aircraft was a Jet Provost T5A side-by-side trainer; monitored his/her actions, switch selections, etc., to (hopefully) ensure the safe operation of the aircraft within the limits of my experience, etc. So I know a little about the practical aspects of CRM.

I recall one of you earlier posts when you operated a flight into Seattle and were able to fly at a lower altitude than normal thus giving the pax a "grand tour" of some of the Washington State volcanoes. Can you recall if you or the captain gave a "tour bus" commentary on that flight? Would that effectively be prohibited under the proposed legislation?

Another point: most visitors to your blog will be aware of and have probaly heard those recent Tower/ATC exchanges at JFK. Whatever the right's and wrong's of how that was allowed to happen, the responses from the flightcrews involved were not exactly to regulation. A couple of years ago I heard an ATC/Flightcrew exchange on "LiveATC.net" - flight into an airport in the US south east - that went something like this:

"Approach, [flight number] inbound ILS seventeen left"

"[flight number] good afternoon, we have a special to seventeen right visual on now"

2 second delay - for CRM?

"Approach, OK, we'll take the special"

"OK, [flight number] cleared visual seventeen right, proceed direct [reporting point] call tower on [freq], good afternoon"

"to {reporting point] for visual seventeen right, tower on [freq], [flight number], thanks good day.

Not exactly to spec either; what would be the outcome if this exchange was picked up as part of a monitoring process iaw 3048?

It seems to me that the Honourable Senator has not had much press recently and this is his way of saying, "I'm stiil here people; still speding your tax dollars on justifying my existance here..."

Thanks...

Kind regards,

IanH

Anonymous said...

Our society does not trust people anymore. We don't trust pilots, doctors, teachers, cops, or priests; we've never trusted politicians. Our 24-7 media driven consciousness will not tolerate imperfection, yet lusts for scandal, disaster, and disillusionment. Contradictions abound. I may not want to fly an airline that skimps on safety, but when I’m booking a flight online, I will buy the ticket that costs the least. Resolve this contradiction, and you resolve the impasse. In this as in so much – health care, energy, education, social morals - the ultimate fault lies not with a greedy industry or a foolish government, but the ultimate masters of both: us.

I am neither a pilot nor an aviation insider. I know I am not an expert here, nor in justice, nor medicine, nor education. I am a reasonably educated outsider. I am inclined to trust where trust has been earned. Your blog pieces are compelling, informative, and entertaining, and it is the weight of their consistent integrity that makes me inclined to trust your opinions now. Without this weight behind you, your intent to place your career in play would be grandstanding. With it, trusting you, I shall write my congress person to vote No on S.3048. In exchange, please continue your good work on our behalf.

And good luck!

MarkW

Brian said...

Sam -- I've been reading this blog a long time and have always been appreciative of your insight and analysis. I sincerely hope you don't go through with resigning your position should this ill-advised legislation pass. Doing so probably won't change anything for the better: passengers will be worse off, as will your readers, and of course -- unless you have something better lined up already -- so will your family. We would all be in trouble if the best professionals in any field resigned just because Congress does something stupid.

Here's hoping the bill doesn't pass or that you will change your mind, as I had looked forward to hearing about your days as a 787 captain (or maybe the 350?) in the future.

-Brian

Sarah said...

Sam,

I respect your commitment and share your opinion of this knee-jerk legislation. I fervently hope you don't have to carry through on your pledge.

I'm not a professional pilot, but am a Minnesota resident. I'll draft a letter and send it to Sen. Franken. In the past, he's shown he's an intelligent, reasonable guy. Let's hope he listens to reason.

Anonymous said...

Sam,

Given the state of the current political environment, with health care being the tail that is waging the dog followed close by jobs and our foreign commitments, I highly doubt this piece will see the floor let alone be signed into law. I would be concerned that it might be "pieced" into another bill that has legs, say the FAA reauthorization bill that will see action sooner than later. I think the citizens of our nation need to be aware of things that aren't in the headlines of the newspapers but will have an effect on the aviation industry. If you read this blog from South Carolina and you don't agree with your U.S. Senator, call his office (202-224-6121) TODAY! and let him know how you feel.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Sam, when you expressed your support for the pilot professionalism bill, someone posted in the comments section that you should be careful of inviting the government into you field because you won't be able to get them out. Be careful what you wish for.

Anonymous said...

That is an intelligently written, cogent, and compelling letter.

Too bad you're sending it to an idiot.

GreenPilot said...

Hard to recall such a pivotal, potentially industry-shattering piece of legislation being on the table compared to this.

I don't know what the answers are, or who will make those decisions, I just know that knee-jerk reactions made by lawmakers who justify their position with big words and fancy suits usually don't help aviation safety. And, at the end of the day, isn't that what we're trying to improve?

Very provoking piece Sam, and again I thank you for writing and being a voice for 121 pilots of the world. If I'm even half the pilot and man of integrity you are, I'll be in good shape.

Blondie said...

Don't leave us!

Aviatrix said...

That's fantastic, Sam. An exceptionally well-made point. Anyone in or out of aviation should be able to grasp and respond to that.

Anonymous said...

You assume Al Franken, or anyone on his staff, can read.

Sam said...

Awright everyone, sorry I waited to respond to comments, been pretty busy lately with flying, motorcycling, etc - most recently, riding a friend's Ducati from TX to AL for her.

Anonymous - I haven't thought of it a great deal because I don't give this turkey a great chance of actually passing. I'd likely try to stay in aviation, whether that be corporate flying, ATC, full-time writing, open a flight school, etc. Otherwise back to school with me.

Ken- I'll tell you exactly what we do behind our reinforced kevlar doors. We do our best to fly safely and professionally but like all humans, occasionally screw up. When it happens, the other guy almost always catches it. I have no desire to work in an environment where the inevitable screwups can be used against me if I piss the wrong person off, or where my FO is afraid to speak up when I screw up for fear of tipping off "big brother."

CVRs are only required to record 2 hrs of conversation but could easily record more. For example, the quick access FDRs used for the FOQA program record many days of data at one time. With this legislation, there'd be nothing to stop management from installing a similar CVR. What's more, the most egregious management abuse would not be from finding something they didn't like during random CVR monitoring. It would be pulling the CVR after every flight by a pilot who had pissed them off...union work, maybe, or perhaps interpreted the contract in a way they didn't like, or was "excessively conservative" and cost the company money. I could easily see them pulling the CVR whenever a captain chooses to divert and the company questions whether it was justified. Just the knowledge that management is pulling CVRs after these types of events would be enough to modify many pilots behaviors in the direction management seeks.

Sam said...

David - Thanks, feel free to plagiarize to your hearts content!!

Simpilot - Q1. Aircraft currently required by regs to have a CVR. Q2. It would apply to aircraft operated under Part 121, ie N-registered aircraft, wherever they are operated. It would not apply to foreign-registered aircraft operated here. Q3. That's essentially my argument.

BTW, nothing against regs in that exchange even if some nonstandard phraseology is used. It's actually only ATC that is required to use standard phraseology by regulation, although some companies have such a clause in their FOM.

MarkW - Thanks for the comments, I agree. I don't really feel like I'm "placing my career in play" over this. I simply know that I will not wish to fly under the proposed bill, and feel that I may as well make my congresspersons aware of the fact.

Brian - Like I said above, me resigning if this happens isn't a matter of proving a point or "getting even" or whatever. I'm fully aware that if this goes through, me resigning won't change a thing, and I'll be in for some tumultuous times as I change careers. That's not the point. The point is that I had certain expectations when I began this career, many of which have been dashed over the last decade. Every man has a point at which he says "no more." This is that point for me. If this goes through, the career has lost the last bit of value for me. I will simply choose not to be an airline pilot anymore.

Sarah - send it to Klobuchar also! I wrote her a letter too but just posted the one to Franken here.

Anonymous - I never "invited the government into the industry", they were deep inside it long before I showed up. Now you seem to imply that this bill is just desserts for my support of raising airline hiring minimums. That comparison is fatuous, they're not even rough equivalents. The government already regulates who the airlines can hire, adjusting those requirements so slightly that it won't make a lick of difference except in the most tight labor markets is a far far far cry from upending the very basis of a painstakingly built safety culture 20 years in the making all so management has another tool for union-busting.

Sam said...

Anonymous 6:45 and the other Franken-basher. My politics diverge pretty widely from Franken's and I find his temperament unsuitable for a Senator. That said, he's my Senator. He's the one who will cast "my" vote on this thing if it ever reaches the Senate floor. If I don't write him, then who?

And however I disagree with some of his other political stands, Franken has shown himself to be pro-labor. In fact, he owes labor for his extremely thin margin of victory in 2008. I think he'll be taking ALPA's stand on this into strong consideration when he casts his vote.