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Pilots blame Atlas Air, FAA for 2019 freighter crash

Investigators say FAA dropped the ball on electronic system for pilot background checks

Debris from an Amazon Air cargo plane scattered across a swamp in Trinity Bay, Texas., Feb. 23, 2019. The NTSB says pilot error is the probable cause of the accident, but other factors played a role. (Photo: NTSB)

(Updated July 17, 2020 at 8:57 A.M. with details from Cargo Airline Association.)

The union representing pilots at all-cargo carrier Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW) strenuously objected to investigators’ findings that mistakes by the captain contributed to a deadly crash last year, blaming the company and aviation regulators for allegedly letting an unqualified co-pilot fly commercial aircraft.

A National Transportation Safety Board draft report this week attributed the accident’s probable cause to errors by the first officer in response to inadvertent activation of a switch that aborted the plane’s automated descent. The co-pilot, confused into thinking the Boeing 767-300 converted freighter was stalling, pitched it into a nosedive. Investigators said the pilot was distracted by other duties and failed to adequately monitor the flight path and quickly assume control of the aircraft.

The independent agency also was critical of airline industry practices for selecting pilots and measuring their performance, and the Federal Aviation Administration for dragging its feet on implementing an electronic clearinghouse for sharing pilot records related to qualifications and performance. The investigation determined that the first officer deceived Atlas Air about his employment history to hide a history of performance deficiencies and his tendency to panic when faced with an unexpected event during training scenarios.

Atlas Air was operating the plane for Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), which was dressed in the light blue “Amazon Prime Air” livery, when it went down Feb. 23, 2019 in a swamp about 40 miles from Houston’s main airport. 

During a hearing to discuss the staff report, NTSB members “identified problems at Atlas Air that were evident in the safety culture and hiring and training programs, but the Board did not develop those issues into causes, findings or recommendations directed at Atlas Air,” Teamster’ Local 2750 said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Instead the Board placed responsibility on the captain to compensate for both the FAA’s failures and the inadequacies of a pilot that Atlas hired, certified as qualified and type rated in the [Boeing] 767.”

The union is involved in lengthy and contentious negotiations with the airline on a new long-term contract for pilots.

However, the report did fault Atlas Air’s human resources department for relying on designated agents to review pilot background records and flag items of concern, which “resulted in the company’s failure to evaluate the first officer’s unsuccessful attempt to upgrade to captain at his previous employer.”

“We regularly evaluate our practices and protocols, and since the accident, have made several important enhancements to our own hiring, training, and pilot review procedures,” Atlas Air said in a statement. The company declined to provide details about the new personnel procedures.

Pilot records database

Congress instructed the FAA in 2010 to create an electronic pilot records database to ensure FAA and air carrier background information on pilots are retained for the life of the pilot and that air carriers review those records when making hiring decisions. But the mandate did not include a deadline.

The concept is similar to renewed calls in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s death for a national police misconduct registry so bad police officers can’t move from one department to another.

The FAA maintains records related to airman certificates, medical conditions and enforcement actions, while carriers maintain records related to pilot training and qualifications, final disciplinary actions, employment separation actions, and drug and alcohol testing. Sharing those forms is manual and often paper-based, with documents exchanged via mail or email.

In 2015, the Transportation Department’s inspector general admonished the FAA for not making significant progress on developing a centralized database for pilot records. The audit noted that air carriers often don’t have all relevant pilot records available to review when evaluating pilot applications and making hiring decisions. The FAA responded at the time that the necessary rulemaking was lengthy and complex to ensure that data collected is reliable and secure.

A decade earlier, the NTSB also recommended that the FAA require air carriers to obtain any notices of disapproval for pilots before making hiring decisions, but the agency never followed through with a rulemaking. Notices of disapproval are provided to pilots when they fail to satisfactorily complete a flight test, either an instrument rating, with a flight instructor, or for an airline transport pilot certificate. 

The FAA on March 30 issued a notice of proposed rulemaking for a pilot records database and says it plans to publish a final ruling early next year. 

The NTSB said that had the FAA complied with the database requirement, Atlas Air would have had relevant information about the first officer’s employment history and deficient training performance. 

The Cargo Airline Association, in comments filed with the agency last month, said it strongly supports the rule, but that it should clearly spell out the roles and responsibilities of all interested parties to avoid confusion. The rulemaking, the CAA explained, represents a fundamental change in pilot record-keeping because it moves the look-back requirement from five years to a pilot’s lifetime, involves technology investments to comply and requires companies to pay a fee to the government to conduct the checks.

The trade association, which represents Atlas Air and four other carriers (ABX Air, FedEx Express, Kalitta Air and UPS) complained that the proposed rule didn’t address the additional need for adjudication and document review when there are questions about the accuracy of historical records. It also asked that the FAA only require air carriers to check five-years of history for pilots currently employed and a rolling five-year time frame from the time a pilot left a company. The FAA should also postpone plans for a $110 user fee until there is more data on how much it will cost to operate the clearinghouse, it added.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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One Comment

  1. Stephen Webster

    Amazon has a very bad safety standards and record along with many of their Sub contacters. Many changes need to improve standards for air cargo and to protect airline pilots and truck drivers. .Also to protect delivery drivers and Uber drivers.

Comments are closed.

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]