In the last 40 years the US FAA has spent hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars engineering safety into the nation’s commercial aviation infrastructure. This policy at the FAA has led to great success in achieving an astonishing low commercial aviation mishap rate in the US. Moreover it has provided an example for Western Europe, Pacrim Asia and the rest of the world to match in building and outfitting highly standardized, major international commercial all-weather airports. Birmingham International Airport in Birmingham, Alabama is one of these airports.
But on the early morning hours of August 14, 2013 at Birmingham International, all of the latest and greatest in hundreds of billions of dollars of technology and engineering was put aside, so that an airfield electrician could change out a few dozen fifteen dollar light bulbs. When UPS 1354 arrived at Birmingham in the cloudy, dark soup of early morning, the pilots’ heads were swimming in night time induced fatigue. All that they hoped for was that the local FAA area Air Traffic Control approach controller would vector them onto the final approach course for the amazingly technical all weather runway. They hoped to couple up their fantastically sophisticated jet’s autoflight system to the airfield’s highly accurate electronic glide slope and precision path localizer. They planned to comply with FAA all weather approach procedures and bring their huge jumbo jet down to the runway along an approach path well clear of trees, mountains and towers. They hoped to land on a well light, precision marked, sharply cut grooved and crowned runway.
But instead, someone at Birmingham, we don’t know who yet, made a decision to invoke a local procedure, a procedure that did not support the most sophisticated FAA instrument approach procedures nor the FAA policy of providing the latest and greatest engineering and technology to commercial flight crew landing huge jumbo jets at Birmingham Airport.
Someone at Birmingham took it upon themselves to take all of this engineering and technology out of service, to shut down all of these highly sophisticated procedures and do so for a considerable amount of time. They did so knowing full well that UPS 1354 would be scheduled to arrive at just this time and in fact was arriving in the area as scheduled. They also knew that the weather at the field held low lying clouds. Additionally, they knew full well that the runway that they would offer UPS 1354 on which to land held only antiquated technology dating back to the dawn of commercial aviation, literally into the 1930’s. Finally, they knew that the descent path for the approach to that runway was directly over hilly and irregular terrain north of the airport, an area unsuited for the installation of any ATC approach modern technology and engineering.
Who was it locally at Birmingham that approved such a procedure that clearly was inconsistent with official FAA all weather commercial operations policy and procedure, and especially so for a cloudy runway at night in the mountains, all while a fully instrumented and safely engineered runway was available and would be consistent with current FAA safety policy? Where is that procedure written down?
Additionally, how did this conflict between local procedure and FAA policy and procedure for all weather commercial operations come to exist at Birmingham? For that matter how did it come to exist at any international FAA airport? Why didn’t someone either in Birmingham FAA Air Traffic Control Office or the Washington FAA Headquarters Air Traffic Control Directorate or the Commercial Air Safety Directorate question this apparent policy versus procedures inconsistency? Was this an FAA managerial snafu or in fact is this a widespread FAA organizational inconsistency and thus a severe commercial aviation safety hazard?
Was not a very similar commercial aviation safety policy versus all weather procedures conflict involved in the Asiana crash in San Francisco just a few months earlier? In that case, instead of an electrician changing out light bulbs, the airfield’s multi billion dollar engineering and technology instrument approach system was set aside so that bull dozers could move dirt around to build a taxiway.
How is it that such inconsistencies exist at FAA? Is this a case of the tail wagging the dog? How is it that the maintenance of light bulbs and airfield construction take precedence over the safe operation of commercial flight? Who at the Washington FAA Headquarters Safety Policy Directorate and the Air Traffic Control Directorate is supposed to be ensuring that local airfield FAA managers are employing procedures that are supportive and consistent with the FAA safety policy? Why are US taxpayers spending hundreds of billions of dollars on commercial airfield infrastructure and operational safety only to have that safety compromised by maintenance and construction and local procedures?
Are we really expecting our international jumbo jet flight crew members to make up for this FAA policy vs procedures failure, at 4am in the morning, in the dark, in the clouds and in the mountains by resorting to 1930’s technology and procedures? Really?
How many more similar commercial airline crashes must occur before the FAA is able to determine that they have policy vs procedures safety inconsistency?
In my opinion, the US National Transportation Safety Board needs to investigate this safety inconsistency, this very severe FAA commercial aviation safety hazard, this severe risk to the US taxpaying public and make a recommendation for corrective action to the FAA before the next similar commercial aviation mishap occurs. In my opinion, they should do so quickly.