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American Airlines pilot: Reduced trainings will make flying less safe

Airlines are cutting training, some pilots say, at the worst possible time, as more collision close-calls are happening and flight demand is surging.
Posted at 9:25 PM, Apr 06, 2023

As airlines approach the busy summer travel season, one of the largest pilots' unions in the country is sounding the alarm about changed training procedures they deem potentially threatening to safety.

Amid unprecedented pressure on the aviation industry — with widespread staffing shortages from cockpits to control towers and robust post-pandemic travel demand — airlines are pushing staff to keep planes and passengers moving. In some cases, pilots say, that's meant American Airlines has truncated training or made it less frequent to accommodate the crunch without the necessary staff.

"They said, 'Well if we can't get enough people, maybe we reduce the amount of training that we do,'" said Dennis Tajer, a captain for American and a spokesperson for his union. "It sounds like a proper business decision, and is it legal? 'Oh, yeah, it's legal.' Well, just because it's legal doesn't mean it's safe or smart." 

Tajer is alluding to a response the FAA sent his union, The Allied Pilots Association, last summer after they asked acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen to take a closer look at several training changes that concerned pilots. The list included a reduction in the frequency of "recurrent" training, which refreshes active pilots on critical maneuvers and any new procedures. Pilots used to undergo that training once every nine months, but management recently reduced it to once a year. 

"They went through, and they culled through all of the requirements," Tajer said. "'What's the requirement by the FAA?' And any time they found a high blade of grass — that we were doing more than the FAA required — they said, 'This is an opportunity to reduce that touch time with instructors, and give that instructor time to go do something else.'"

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The pilots also raised concerns that the airline was adding to the workload for instructor pilots, cramming training sessions into late-night hours and removing an extra safety measure on the airlines' flights to Guatemala City.

"High terrain, mountainous, runways are very unusual," Tajer said, describing the approach into the Central American airport. "It's a high-threat area, just in normal operations. For decades, any time you went in there for the first time, you had a highly-trained check pilot with you who would show you the ropes, introduce you to some things."

The requirement that a check pilot accompany a more junior pilot on their first flight into Guatemala City was removed last year, according to the union.

Nearly two months after the Allied Pilots Association sent the FAA's Nolen a letter documenting their concerns, he responded. He told the union his team reviewed the company changes and "found them to be consistent with regulatory requirements and policy."

"I'm not asking you if it's legal. That's a binary thing. That's a lazy way to oversee airlines," Tajer said. "And he's a pilot! The most toxic thing you can say on the flight deck is, 'Hey, captain, it's legal.'"

American Airlines told Scripps News "Safety is the foundation of every decision we make at American, and is the north star of our Flight Training program. Any changes or updates made to our flight training protocols are always in line with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and are only issued after a thorough risk-based safety assessment. We have the best, most-expertly trained pilots in the business who are unwavering in their mission of operating a safe airline for our customers and fellow team members."

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In January, an American Airlines flight crew taxied a Boeing 777 with 149 people on board and without clearance onto an active runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. They put the plane in the direct path of a Delta Air Lines 737, barreling down the runway at more than 90 miles per hour on its takeoff roll. The Delta pilots slammed on the brakes and stopped their fully loaded jet just 500 feet from where the American plane crossed in front of them.

That was the first of what would become a string of headline-grabbing incidents at major airports across the country in which passenger jets came uncomfortably or dangerously close to one another.

Just 10 days prior to the JFK incident, American Airlines implemented new protocol for pilot communication at critical phases of flight. The changes tweaked what pilots were expected to say to each other during maneuvers like a rejected landing. Pilots had been notified of the changes about a month prior and never received formal training or instruction on how to implement the new protocol. Instead, they were given about 100 pages of reading. 

When pilots pushed back, the airline told them it would be acceptable to mix old procedures with the new until pilots got a grasp of the new script.

"That is the absolute opposite of what we do in aviation," Tajer said. "I only get one manual. I can't carry two and say, 'Well, I'm gonna use part of the old one and some of the new one.'"

It's not clear if confusion caused by the changed procedures contributed to the January incident at JFK. The NTSB told Scripps News their investigation "will include any communication or procedural issues inside or outside the cockpit that could have affected the safe operation of the flight." 

The Allied Pilots Association is party to the investigation, and Tajer wouldn't say what role the new procedures may or may not have played in the incident.

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Pilots aren't the only ones feeling the strain of an over-extended aviation sector. Earlier this year, the FAA asked airlines to help alleviate demand on New York City-area air traffic controllers this summer by limiting the number of flights they operate during peak demand.

"I've been flying for over 36 years, 30 years in the airlines with military experience prior," Tajer said. "In all of my experiences, I have never seen so much pressure on a system, and seen it start to leak, as I've seen now." 

The FAA held a safety summit in March to urge industry leaders to work to avoid runway incursions like the one at JFK. But the head of the National Transportation Safety Board pointed the finger at the FAA for failing to implement its recommendations from years past, that were intended to prevent runway incursions. 

"How many times are we going to have to issue the same recommendations over and over?" Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the NTSB, said at the summit.

FAA data on runway incursions shows those incidents have not dramatically spiked from years past. They tend to occur about 1,500 to 1,800 times a yea. But regulators say there has been an uptick in "serious" incidents, and they appear to be harnessing public attention to address ways to reduce those numbers.

"There have been far too many close calls and near-collisions recently, any of which could've had devastating consequences with precious lives lost," Homendy said.

Meanwhile, the FAA is searching for a new permanent leader. The Biden Administration's previous nominee, Phillip Washington, withdrew his nomination after Republicans questioned his level of experience in aviation safety. Any new nominee will surely face questions about how to address runway incursions and airline oversight.