Sunday, February 5, 2017

Torqued: A Look Ahead at the Challenges of 2017

As last year drew to a close, my thoughts turned to reflecting on the past 12 months and looking forward to the next. No year in aviation can be called a dull year, and the past one was no different. While the accident statistics remain enviable in the U.S., we had our share of tragic crashes around the globe. Some—EgyptAir Flight 804—highlighted, among other things, the continuing need for a faster, more efficient way to capture black box data.

All 66 passengers and crew were killed in that crash, and key information as to why the Airbus A320 disappeared from radar at 37,000 feet on a routine flight from Paris to Cairo and plunged into the Mediterranean Sea was buried beneath 10,000 feet of water for a month. It remains critically important to get the black box data as soon as possible after a crash to help determine what occurred and what could have been done to prevent it.

And the technology exists to do just that. The crash of Emirates Flight 521, a Boeing 777-300, on landing at Dubai International Airport —proved that new technology could make the process of downloading and retrieving critical flight information a matter of minutes. Although the black boxes were removed from the burned wreckage on the day after the accident, the quick access recorder installed on the Emirates Boeing 777 had transmitted critical flight data to airline officials within minutes of the crash, according to its Miami-based manufacturer, Avionica.

Imagine if that had been possible on the still-missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. The three-year search for the black boxes and answers for families and investigators might have been reduced to just minutes, saving much heartbreak for the families and millions of dollars for investigators. In March last year, a report from the Malaysia Transport Ministry reported the search price tag had passed $70 million. So one can only imagine how many millions more the cost has gone up now, with hopes for finding the wreckage seeming ever remoter. 

A Year of Progress

Looking back over the year, I was glad to see the FAA continue its non-regulatory approach to improving safety in the general aviation community by using data on causes of GA incidents and accidents and partnering with aviation groups to do outreach to the GA community. It’s too soon to tell whether those efforts will continue the downward trend in GA’s accident rate. But it’s a worthy effort.

GA pilots and those who fly with them (yes, I think passengers could learn something about the risks of, say, flying in bad weather or pressuring pilots to keep a schedule even when the pilot indicates he or she is not comfortable with it) would do well to study the free materials being disseminated as part of the #FlySafe campaign.

Certainly 2016 was a landmark year for the unmanned aviation world with the introduction of the long-awaited commercial drone rules and the FAA certification of unmanned aircraft pilots. As of this writing, there are half a million registered unmanned aircraft and tens of thousands of airmen who now hold a new FAA airman certificate, called a remote pilot certificate with small UAS rating. It was a year for many of us used to the pilot-in-the-aircraft world of aviation to begin adjusting to sharing airspace with remotely piloted machines.

Some of the overheated anti-drone rhetoric seems to have died down and the industry continues to enjoy a remarkable safety record. This year should see progress in the FAA’s continued incremental opening up of the skies to commercial unmanned aircraft operations. The agency is proposing new rules for operations of small UAS over people; those draft rules are expected to be out early this year and will expand the usefulness of drones in many industries.

Last year also saw the bill to privatize air traffic control proposed and then die without action. That bill would have created a not-for-profit corporation to run the air traffic system. The corporation’s board would have been stuffed with major airline members, and GA and other users would have had little input. 

With the airline lobbying group still pushing for ATC privatization, a resurrection of that bill in some form is likely this year. Opponents will need to be ready to push back on giving that kind of control to the airlines or any other private airspace user. I don’t support privatizing ATC because I think it will put too much power in the hands of those with the biggest lobbying budget. And, at least with this most recent draft legislation, the more powerful lobbying group was the airlines.

Of most concern to me is the growing gap between the industry’s need for pilots and mechanics and the numbers of young people being trained and prepared for those positions. The 2016 Boeing forecast predicts an “extraordinary demand for people to fly and maintain” the tens of thousands of airplanes expected to be delivered over the next 20 years.

The airframer forecasts a need between now and 2035 for “two million new aviation personnel—617,000 airline pilots, 679,000 maintenance technicians, and 814,000 cabin crew.” And while these are worldwide numbers, the numbers for North America are still staggering—112,000 pilots, 127,000 mechanics and 151,000 cabin crew.

Last year, JetBlue began an innovative program to train pilots to work for the airline, accepting applicants with no flight experience and training them to work in the cockpits of airliners. It will be interesting to see how that program develops and the airline’s success in getting applicants.

The program costs approximately $125,000 and there are no guarantees of a pilot's being hired once the program is completed, although that is clearly the intended outcome. While the cost of the program—on top of a four-year degree (the preferred qualification)—might be prohibitive for many, it’s a positive step in trying to fill the pilot need. It would be great to see other aviation entities try similarly innovative approaches.

(John Goglia - AINOnline News) 

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