Nearly a dozen years after being mandated by Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration is finally modernizing its system for sharing records of pilot performance and qualifications to improve aviation safety. Commercial cargo and passenger airlines next summer will be required to begin submitting current and historical data on pilots and searching the electronic clearinghouse to help assess pilot skill and performance when making hiring and personnel management decisions.

The rulemaking is designed to prevent unqualified pilots from moving from one employer to another by avoiding full disclosure of their work history. It centralizes recordkeeping and eliminates sharing of paper documents, enabling faster retrieval of pilot records and increasing accuracy. 

The FAA action follows last summer’s finding by the National Transportation Safety Board into the deadly 2019 crash of an Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW) 767-300 cargo jet under contract to Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) that cited agency foot-dragging for making it possible for the first officer to hide a history of performance deficiencies and a tendency to panic when faced with unexpected events during training sessions. The investigation determined the co-pilot made mistakes during the plane’s initial descent, sending it into a nosedive, and that the captain didn’t move quickly enough to reverse the commands because he was distracted. 

Air operators will be required to start using the Pilot Records Database next June and complete the transmission of documents from Jan. 1, 2015, forward, within two years. In three years, paper-based records will no longer be available as an alternative tool, according to a copy of the rule scheduled to be published in Thursday’s Federal Register.

(Source: Federal Register)

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

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

In 2015, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general chastised the FAA for not making significant progress 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. 

In 2005, 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 issued its proposed rulemaking on March 30, 2020. After reviewing more than 800 comments, the FAA opted against charging a user fee to access pilot records.

Congress enacted the Pilot Records Improvement Act (PRIA) in 1997 to ensure air carriers conduct background checks after a series of accidents attributed to pilot error. The NTSB found that although the pilots had a history of poor training performance or other indicators of impaired judgment, their employers had not investigated their backgrounds. 

Two accidents following the enactment and implementation of PRIA led the NTSB to make additional findings and recommendations regarding retention of pilot records; the sharing of information related to pilot performance among operators; and operators’ review of previous performance records.

Final impetus to update PRIA came after a 2009 Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, New York, that resulted in the death of all 49 passengers on board and one person on the ground. The investigation determined the crash was caused by pilot error and identified deficiencies in Colgan’s recordkeeping system and analysis of the flight crew’s qualifications and previous performance. The captain failed his initial proficiency test on the Saab 340 aircraft and practical tests for the instrument rating in that airplane category. 

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