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Key Findings

More than 2,300 people have been killed from ice buildup on aircraft, problems on runways, faulty aircraft maintenance and repairs and overtired pilots, despite dozens of NTSB recommendations to address those problems.
Related stories:
Resistance in the Cockpit
Repairing Planes on the Cheap
Pilots – the Next Generation
No Way To Know
Legislating Safety
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The trend also raises concerns about the quality of pilots, the size of the available pilot pool and how air traffic controllers will track planes in the sky.

At a public forum this summer, the NTSB expressed worry about what it calls pilot professionalism. Today’s pilots may be less qualified when they’re hired, get less training and have less time to learn on the job before taking command of a plane, safety experts said.

The result, said former military pilot and air safety expert Anthony Kern, is an industry that is “becoming infected with complacency, casual noncompliance and sloppiness.”

Several major crashes in the past five years involved pilots who were found to have violated basic rules of conduct in the cockpit. They include a 2006 runway accident in Kentucky that killed 49. The NTSB said the pilots’ “non-pertinent conversation” likely contributed to them taking off on the wrong runway, which was too short for the plane to get airborne.

The NTSB has not yet recommended specific action to the FAA, but members warned that they might if problems aren’t addressed.

Meanwhile, Congress has raised hiring standards for pilots. They will be required to log more flight hours and get more training on how to deal with problem situations before they climb into the cockpit of a passenger plane. That could mean fewer available pilots to hire in the first place.

Compounding the problem is declining enrollment at flight schools as well as a drop in the number of trained pilots leaving the military for jobs in the private sector.

“And so what’s going to happen in the next two to four years when hiring goes up?” asked Judy Tarver, former chief of hiring for American Airlines who is now vice president of, which publishes airline job information. “That pool has to come from somewhere. And you can’t just take an aspiring pilot off the street and put them in the cockpit in a couple of months.”

Increased air traffic also will put pressure on the nation’s air traffic control system, which already faces a massive shift from radar-based air tracking systems to a satellite-based system called the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.

Tens of billions of dollars have been allocated to developing technology that the FAA hopes will boost capacity and reduce delays. But safety advocates say there is a finite number of takeoffs and landings that can occur on the nation’s runways. Transportation safety lobbyist and former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz said pushing the boundaries of work for air traffic controllers under NextGen will stretch the limits of safety.

“Clearly air traffic control is going to be one of the next significant areas where safety is going to have to be monitored very carefully,” he said.

News21 reporters Stevie Mathieu, Charlie Litton and Tessa Muggeridge and Center for Public Integrity staff members Michael Pell and Nick Schwellenbach contributed reporting to this story.

Sept. 26, 2010

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