Initial Pilot Training:

Better Management Controls Are Needed to Improve FAA Oversight

GAO-12-117: Published: Nov 4, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 15, 2011.


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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
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Regional airlines have experienced the last six fatal commercial airline accidents, and pilot performance has been cited as a potential contributory factor in four of these accidents. As a result, Congress and others have raised questions about, among other issues, the initial pilot education and training required before pilots can be hired by airlines, at which time they receive further training. The initial training is provided by pilot schools overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As requested, this report discusses (1) the various types of U.S. pilot schools, how they compare, and associated issues; (2) key similarities and differences between the U.S. and international approaches to pilot training; and (3) how and to what extent FAA carries out oversight of pilot training and certification. To address these issues, GAO reviewed literature, legislation, regulations, and FAA documents and inspection and enforcement data; interviewed agency and industry officials; and studied the training approach in Europe because of the different training model and visited four European countries.

The approximately 3,400 pilot schools in the United States can be divided into three types: (1) flight instructor based, (2) vocational, and (3) collegiate. The school types vary in several ways, but all pilot students must pass the same knowledge and flight tests to obtain a pilot certificate from FAA. Airline operations have evolved operationally and technologically, but the pilot training requirements for certification of commercial pilots were last revised in 1997. FAA and some industry stakeholders have indicated that current requirements for commercial pilots should incorporate additional training to improve the competency of entry-level regional airline pilots. FAA has initiated or planned a number of efforts to address these issues and recently enacted legislation requires FAA to implement regulations to increase pilot requirements for airlines by August 2013. The U.S. and Europe both offer the same pilot certifications but the training models differ, in part, due to training philosophies and other circumstances. The U.S. training approach emphasizes proficiency on actual flight training, while Europe's approach tends to emphasize academic instruction with more knowledge training requirements and testing. European pilot schools have also developed more comprehensive student screening processes than in the U.S. FAA has an annual inspection program that includes the oversight of pilot schools, pilot examiners, and flight instructors, the gatekeepers for the initial pilot training process. GAO analysis of FAA inspection data showed a 78 percent completion rate of the required inspections for pilot schools in fiscal year 2010, but, due to insufficient information, GAO was unable to determine completion percentages for prior years. Similarly, GAO could not determine 1) whether FAA completed the required inspections for pilot examiners or 2) the reasons that the discretionary inspections of flight instructors--which are generally optional--were conducted. Furthermore, FAA's national office does not adequately monitor the completion of annual inspection activities due, in part, to an inability to aggregate inspection data from the local district offices that conduct the inspections. Thus, FAA does not have a comprehensive system in place to adequately measure its performance in meeting annual inspection requirements, which could make it difficult to ensure regulatory compliance and that safety standards are being met.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In DOT's 60-day letter, dated March 5, 2012, FAA partially concurred with GAO's recommendation, but FAA officials later acknowledged that after the letter was submitted to GAO, they realized that a mistake was made in the letter where it was stated that not all inspections listed in the National Program Guidelines' (NPG) inspection requirements for pilot schools were required annually and that only one Operations inspection and one Airworthiness inspection was required to be accomplished. They concurred with GAO's original assessment and clarified that FAA's intent was that for pilot schools, inspectors were required to complete each of the five Operations inspections and each of the five Airworthiness inspections annually. The new language was incorporated into the changes in the August 2013 edition of the NPG, and FAA officials told us that inspectors had already begun implementing the change through the data system that generated the required inspections items for inspectors. Nevertheless, this change in policy to clarify FAA's intent for providing oversight of pilot schools does not address the GAO recommendation for improving FAA's existing data systems to measure performance for meeting the annual NPG inspection requirements for pilot schools. GAO found that FAA completed most required inspections of pilot schools, but the agency's data sources did not provide certainty that the level of oversight is consistently being performed in accordance with the agency's guidelines and policies. For instance, for fiscal year 2010, GAO's analysis of FAA's data found that FAA completed about 78 percent of the required inspections for the pilot schools, while FAA determined the completion rate for that year to be 99.99 percent. However, they did not provide evidence to verify this information, but they provided several reasons to potentially explain why some of the required inspections were not recorded in FAA's data system that resulted in GAO's lower completion rate. GAO also suggested several considerations for implementing better internal control mechanisms, such as creating and reviewing agency-wide reports using inspection data periodically and establishing standard procedures for inspectors for entering data to avoid the uncertainty of whether or not they were completed as required. In addition, FAA stated in the 60-day letter that FAA was taking steps to improve oversight of designated pilot examiners (DPE) with the development and deployment of its new designee management system (DMS). According to FAA, DMS was expected to provide more comprehensive data on DPE surveillance and performance, and the transition of DPE oversight to DMS would address the GAO recommendation. Deployment of the new system was planned for June 2012 for DPE oversight was scheduled to be completed by May 2013. However, in August 2014, FAA indicated that while the deployment of DMS had begun for two other types of designees, the transition of DPEs to the system would be part of the 5th version of the DMS deployment process which was scheduled for the 3rd quarter of fiscal year 2016 (approximately the April to June 2016 time frame). More recently in January 2016, FAA provided an update that due to a significant system failure and unexpected delays with the development and deployment of DMS for another designee type, the schedule for transitioning DPE oversight to DMS was also delayed. FAA stated that if no additional delays were encountered, DPEs and four other types of designees would be transitioned to DMS in January 2017.

    Recommendation: To improve FAA's oversight of pilot certification and training, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a comprehensive system that may include modifying or improving existing data systems to measure performance for meeting the annual National Program Guidelines' inspection requirements for pilot schools with a Part 141 certificate and pilot examiners.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In DOT's 60-day letter, dated March 5, 2012, FAA concurred with GAO's recommendation and indicated the agency would analyze the costs and benefits of making modifications to the Safety Performance and Analysis System (SPAS). In September 2012, FAA completed a review of SPAS's capabilities and usefulness in researching and analyzing inspection data for flight instructors, and issued a report that summarized the analysis that was conducted in response to GAO's recommendation. The report recommended SPAS enhancements and modifications that would address the intent of the recommendation, and the necessary funding was subsequently requested from FAA management to take the actions. However, the request was not approved for the funding due to the lack of available resources for implementing the required modifications to SPAS. FAA program officials explained that after two consecutive years of requesting the funds and not being approved, they have determined this project will be not funded in the near future. Thus, in July 2014, FAA requested GAO to close this recommendation as "not implemented" due to the lack of available funding for implementing the required modifications to SPAS that would address this recommendation. More recently, in May 2016, FAA provided an update that although FAA has not had the budgetary resource to make the intended enhancements to SPAS described in its original response, SPAS currently provides a research and analysis tool allowing for a manual query for flight instructors. Using this query, every Certificated Fight Instructor (CFI) with an address located in that district is listed by name. This analysis displays the number of practical test recommendations a CFI has given to applicants for an FAA certificate or rating. The analysis tool includes the practical test pass rate percentage for those applicants recommended by the CFI. The total number of practical tests and the pass rate are provided for the previous two years, allowing FAA personnel to quickly view the recent activity for the instructor. Flight instructors determined to be of potentially high risk may be further analyzed by FAA personnel. This higher risk identification can be based on applicant failure rate or other risk-based analysis factors such as regulatory noncompliance, student accidents, or justifiable complaints. FAA inspectors have the latitude to determine what additional oversight actions are necessary and appropriate based on these risk factors while considering available office resources. FAA noted that while it remains committed to reducing the overall accident rate and appreciates GAO's recommendations, due to budget constraints, FAA is not able to fund the enhancements to SPAS, as was discussed in the 2014 update.

    Recommendation: To improve FAA's oversight of pilot certification and training, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a comprehensive system that may include modifying or improving existing data systems to better understand the nature and scope of the discretionary, planned inspections for flight instructors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration


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