Delta pilot sounds alarm on airline safety, says 'we can’t wait for tragedy to fix it'

Former Delta pilot and president of the Air Line Pilots Association said several incidents over the last three months came close to "resulting in tragic accidents" and have to be addressed.

A former Delta Air Lines pilot is raising awareness about issues with aviation safety, arguing that "we are at a critical waypoint" after observing "an unusual number of commercial aviation incidents" recently. 

According to Lee Moak, who piloted Boeing 767 planes for Delta and served as president of the Air Line Pilots Association, several occurrences within the last three months that came close to "resulting in tragic accidents" have to be addressed. In a Washington Post opinion piece titled "Airline safety is at a breaking point. We can't wait for tragedy to fix it," he cited several of these events.

"On Dec. 18, a United Airlines Boeing 777, just seconds into takeoff from the island of Maui, climbed to around 2,220 feet before entering a steep dive and coming within 775 feet of the Pacific Ocean," Moak wrote. As reported by the Seattle Times, United refused to reveal how many passengers were on board of the 312-person-capacity plane or what could have caused the aircraft to plummet.

According to the outlet, that flight took place on the same day that 36 people were hurt, including 11 serious injuries, on an extremely turbulent Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix to Honolulu.

Moak continued, sharing another instance from Jan. 11 when "the nation's airspace came to a standstill for more than two hours after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued the first nationwide ground stop since Sept. 11, 2001, because its method for communicating alerts to pilots, known as NOTAMs, failed."

The FAA's computer system faced massive outages and forced thousands of US flights to be delayed or canceled.

On Jan. 19, the Biden administration said in a statement that workers were attempting to "correct synchronization" between the main and backup databases of NOTAMs when they accidentally deleted some files, causing the system outage.

Moak went on to cite other recent incidents involving botched landings and takeoffs that could've been dangerous, including a Jan. 26 instance when "the tails of two different Alaska Airlines Boeing 737s struck the ground on takeoff due to weight and balance miscalculations only six minutes apart while departing Seattle."

"Normally, the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilot and controller unions, and the airlines do not comment on ongoing safety investigations," the former pilot said. "The accepted process is to wait for any single investigation to be concluded, issue a report on all the factors that contributed to the incident, and then comment on what might be done differently in the future."

He continued, saying that the "recent string of incidents, however, is different."

"The number, nature and potential tragedy of the results involved are unacceptable and concerning. We cannot wait for our aging and understaffed aviation infrastructure to break, and a tragedy to occur, to demand action," Moak argued.

The FAA is set to meet on Wednesday to discuss improving safety, but according to Moak, who headed the largest pilot union in the world, "many people in the commercial aviation sector" already know what has "pushed things close to the breaking point."

"...the airlines, regulators, pilots and flight crews, controllers, and safety experts have just come through a massive transformation during the pandemic. After slowing down to unprecedented levels, with tens of thousands of employees furloughed, commercial aviation is now quickly ramping up operations as air travel demand increases faster than most expected," he wrote.

"The industry is racing to meet the training requirements required to bring furloughed employees back and certify its new employees on the flight deck, at airline operations and maintenance facilities, and at FAA air traffic control centers and towers."

Moak continued, saying that since the Covid lockdowns, "safety leadership has been fluid at best" as the FAA has been without a permanent administrator for nearly a year. 

"The FAA office in charge of aviation safety has had an acting head for a year, as the person previously in that role, Billy Nolen, became acting FAA administrator. Furthermore, Congress has underfunded the FAA for decades, leaving the safety regulator to make do without the technology, tools and staffing needed to upgrade aging systems, physical and digital infrastructure, and keep pace with new technologies," the ex-pilot argued.

Moak went on to call on the government to work closely with airlines, controllers, and pilots to ensure that aviation safety takes a greater priority, stating that "We cannot assume our commercial aviation system can just pick up where it left off in 2020."

"The FAA needs a confirmed administrator. Congress needs to pass an FAA reauthorization bill that prioritizes and funds improvements for the Air Traffic Organization, adds certification resources and makes other identified upgrades to ensure the NOTAM failure never happens again. And lawmakers must hold the FAA accountable for delivering on the safety mandates issued by Congress," he said.

"The old ways of doing business are not working. We must reapply ourselves to ensure that these incidents are avoided altogether. All parties must act now and plot a new course to a safer future," he concluded.

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