It is highly unlikely that National Transportation Safety Board recommendations or pressure from a small group of lawmakers in the wake of last summer’s Comair Flight 5191 crash will push the Federal Aviation Administration to step up the timetable on making such recommendations mandatory.
Those kinds of changes depend on a complex set of factors that are part political and part practical, aviation and political experts said.
“It is very complex to write rules that anticipate every situation,” said Jim Burnley, a former U.S. secretary for Transportation and a partner at Washington-based firm Venable LLP. “The (FAA) is under lots of pressure from all directions not to just write a rule and put it out there because they could be sued from all sorts of directions. Congress is careful because when you’re dealing with safety areas if you push artificial deadlines you can have things happen that you don’t want to have happen.”
Such an approach ensures that the government doesn’t overreact, said Joseph Schwieterman, an aviation expert and a professor of Public Service Management at DePaul University in Chicago.
“When there’s an accident there’s a mad rush to create new laws that are little more than feel-good efforts,” he said. “Elected officials will also err on the side of overzealous policy. This advisory approach will allow for a more patient debate before new requirements are set into stone.”
Still, there are times when that debate drags on so long that both lawmakers and the safety board become frustrated by what they see as the FAA’s delay in issuing new safety rules.
U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, said he’s felt stymied as he’s tried to pin the FAA down on fixing air traffic controller shortages. He said his experience in the wake of the Comair crash, which took place in his district, has involved a circular dance of posing questions, receiving vague responses and watching in frustration as recommendations to the FAA are not made mandatory.
In a statement issued after the NTSB meeting, Chandler noted that several of the NTSB’s safety recommendations echoed ones it has made before.
“Included in their safety recommendations were five previous recommendations that the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to adequately address,” Chandler said. “This is no surprise to me, as the FAA has consistently been unsuccessful in meeting safety priorities recommended by the NTSB.”
During the current congressional session, Chandler filed a piece of legislation aimed at reviewing the FAA’s implementation of new technologies. The measure passed as an amendment to another bill and will likely soon go to the House floor.
“The FAA has been very cavalier in their attitude in terms of anyone who has questioned what they’re doing,” Chandler said. “It’s also of concern that the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board disagree on a number of safety measures.”
It’s not that simple, both FAA and aviation experts said.
Sometimes it’s far too costly to implement the technology required to meet a safety board recommendation or a lawmaker’s request.
“If you have a recommendation that would revolutionize a broad segment of the industry or has broader economic impact that might draw attention,” the NTSB might be less inclined to make such a recommendation, said Jim Burnett, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman and an attorney based in Clinton, Ark.
Sometimes that technology isn’t available or isn’t compatible with other systems already in place, Burnett said.
Sometimes there’s just not enough of a political will to provide the funding that would help meet the recommendations.
“We frequently find that when we issue safety guidance to airlines they become adopted more quickly than when we need legislative approval,” said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the FAA.congress