Champion for aviation safety
By Tom Risen|November 2017
The same day that TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed minutes after taking off from New York in 1996, Mary Schiavo, who had just left her post as the Transportation Department’s inspector general, happened to be testifying on Capitol Hill about airline security. After the hearing, ABC News whisked her to its Washington bureau to discuss the breaking news, beginning her post-government career as a transportation attorney sought after for TV news, court cases and policy discussions. Schiavo has flown as a general aviation pilot and at one time wanted to be a commercial pilot, but the corrective lenses she wears eliminated that possibility. That eyesight policy has since changed, but Schiavo has no regrets about pursuing law and feels at home flying a plane or parachuting. I spoke with her about air safety regulation and technology on the phone from her Motley Rice law office in New York.
IN HER WORDS
Common threads among aircraft crashes
In about three quarters of the cases, the NTSB and the FAA say that it is pilot error. From time to time in our investigations we’ve disagreed with NTSB. Often it’s loss of situational awareness, loss of pilot control. Statistically after that you have engine problems. It used to be that weather was right up there as well, but the onboard radar has gotten so good. Weather is a contributing factor. Sometimes we still have icing issues although they’re decreasing. Engine, tail, wing icing on smaller planes. We still sadly see controlled flight into terrain — like they flew into a mountain — and midairs, runway incursions. Those are the things that technology was supposed to have obliterated by now.
When technology is to blame
The old adage [is] that an air crash is never one thing, it is always a combination of things. About 20 percent of the time we see an engine issue. Engines can still be improved. Redundancy is a pilot’s friend. Other than things like an engine failure, I mostly see a failure of maintenance. I worked on the Alaska 261 flight where the jack screw wasn’t greased. More recently you see issues between the pilot and the equipment. They haven’t paid attention to the warnings in the cockpit and so it’s the interface of the human and the technology. Like Air France [Flight 447 and] Colgan Air [Flight 3407]. Now remember, I don’t get on the litigation side. You might have a lot more engine problems, and issues, and glitches, and smoke in the cabin, and fumes in the cabin, and fumes and smoke in the cockpit from an engine issue, etc., but unless it takes a turn for the worse and someone gets hurt, then I don’t work on the case.
Weather radar to prevent turbulence injury
It would go a really long way to help it, but of course, passengers have to keep the seat belts on. There’s always somebody who doesn’t get the message when the pilot says, “Sit down. Put your belt on.” Weather most often [is a problem] when a pilot has tried to beat it, go through it, ignore it, or hasn’t really checked. If you utter the words “I think we can make it,” then you should have to do a mandatory diversion. I would say weather is also prevalent in about 20 percent of [crash] cases, but it’s getting to the point where it’s not by itself anymore.
Flight tracking ADS-B antennas
It would make an even bigger difference if everyone had it, and the full NextGen system was operational. It has the potential to make incursions and midair [collisions] a thing of the past. Now, I know, there’s the big debate about how much equipment do we want to require in all of the aircraft. But absolutely, it’s very important. We’ll never take the humans out of the system, but I think artificial intelligence is how we’re going to keep track of all our flights.
United Nations’ response to MH370 disappearance
The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization has asked, has begged the nations of the world to require the airlines to have real-time, ocean-spanning, around-the-globe tracking, but the sad part of that is I’m not sure any nation — I know ours hasn’t — no one has made it mandatory. I can’t fault ICAO because they don’t have the power to say, “all planes must all be tracked at all times.” It should be the governments of the world that say, “This will not happen again.” ICAO had several conferences and they’ve put out guidelines and recommendations. I think they have done what they can. In the case of the MH370 disappearance, their protocol for how you do an investigation was very important because without it I don’t think we would have gotten much of an investigation at all.
Why black boxes are still used
The regulatory agencies of the world haven’t required change; until they require change no operator is going to voluntarily spend the money to change the system over to streaming software. There is no reason to have these worldwide searches for black boxes. The regulatory bodies in some ways are holding back the technological advancement. If they said, “We’re not going to rely on searching for pings and black boxes in the mountains [or] under the ocean anymore,” it would be done, and they would pass the cost on to the passengers.
Limited FAA privatization
I think air traffic control is inevitably privatized. Government isn’t cutting-edge and responsive enough to really keep a system like that built out. But not necessarily as just one body. Eurocontrol and Nav Canada have a governing body of appointed officials, usually of significant standing in the nation or the community, and they oversee it so the needs of the citizens and the needs of the country aren’t dismissed from the system. It’s not a corporation only beholden to shareholders; it is a corporation that has to be responsive.
Safety of vertical takeoff craft/air taxis
There’s a lot of companies building these potential air taxi vehicles, and they’re wonderful, but has the FAA really looked at the quality of them? No. Both the developers and the potential regulators have their hands full because so many of them are relying on batteries. You’ve got the issue of the flight time. You’ve got the issue of safety — they’re intending to operate in very close proximity of humans. You’re going to have to protect the people from doing things that people tend to do, which is avoid safety. They ignore safety lines, and barriers, and so you’re going to have to make it idiot-proof. The most logical thing is you’re going to have a whole new system of regulation because this doesn’t fit in part 121 [the FAA requirements for air carriers].
Fully automated flights
It’s without a doubt that aviation can be made safe pilotless. The question is: Will the public accept it? If they have a safety record like commercial airliners or your car, people are going to do it. It’s not going to depend on the regulators, it’s going to depend on public perception.
FAA drone rules
They’re too little too late. And so many of the rules are aimed at the silly stuff like how people are afraid that somebody’s going to fly a drone over the backyard and see them sunbathing in the buff. I would be more worried about building a system that can safely allow those to fly without risk of collision ever, which means it’s going to be entirely computer controlled. They’ve got to have absolutely fail-safe geofencing, and emergency go-home and landing capabilities.