As an airline pilot who has lived in Missouri for 25 years, I am proud of the extraordinary level of safety that passengers and air cargo shippers can expect when they fly or ship freight out of Kansas City International Airport. Safety is why Kansas City passengers have a stake in blocking Washington, D.C., special-interest groups who want to weaken pilot qualification and training improvements put in place after airline accidents –– including one near Kirksville in 2004 — exposed serious risks.
At a recent hearing in Washington, Sen. Roy Blunt, chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, led a discussion of the challenges faced by regional airports and rural communities like Columbia and Springfield in maintaining consistent, reliable and, most important, safe air service.
It’s critical that our nation puts safety first in air transportation. It’s because of this focus that air travel is the world’s safest mode of transport. Given the number of flights, packages and passengers transported by air each day — the 11 million passengers who traveled through KCI in 2016 were among more than 928 million passengers nationwide — this level of safety is an accomplishment.
While it’s an achievement, the safety of our air transportation system is no accident. It’s a result of a fact-based approach. Every time I go to work, I gather facts and data about every aspect of my flight, from weather to runway conditions, to ensure safety.
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This focus on facts is also the foundation for the federal safety regulations. For example, prior to passage of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, the United States had experienced four high-profile fatal airline accidents over a six-year period.
In the context of these four accidents, the FAA also looked at other accidents over the prior decade, including the Corporate Airlines accident near Kirksville, to find out how our nation could improve air safety. The FAA’s investigation found that serious shortcomings existed in airline pilot qualification and training requirements and that the gaps had contributed to many of these accidents.
Congress reacted by passing the safety act. It was a legislative action that had been tragically “written in blood,” according to the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International. In the law, Congress required new-hire first officers to have more experience and satisfy safer qualification standards.
Since passage of the act, there have been no airline accidents with passenger fatalities in the United States. The facts show that by improving training and qualification requirements, our nation has made flying safer.
Despite these facts, special interests want to weaken standards using the false claim that these safer rules for becoming an airline pilot are causing a pilot shortage and using it as an excuse when they cut service to rural communities. In truth, an airline determines where it flies based on whether it will make money. The facts show that plenty of qualified pilots are available for the right careers.
In “The Spirit of St. Louis,” Charles Lindbergh noted that “danger is relative and that inexperience can be a magnifying glass.” We have learned from tragedies like Kirksville. Our nation increased pilot experience and training requirements to prevent anything similar from happening again.
Blunt is to be applauded for putting a spotlight on the need for safe and reliable rural air service. A magnifying glass isn’t necessary to see that safety, not special interests, must win out when it comes to protecting Missouri’s airline passengers.
An airline pilot for more than 30 years, Capt. W. Randolph Helling is vice president-finance/treasurer of the Air Line Pilots Association, International and flies the Airbus A320.