Are FAA and NTSB protecting the public or airlines?

U.S. government reaction to four serious airline mishaps within the past seven months raises a disturbing question: Are the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board protecting the public? Or are they looking out first for pilots and the airline industry?

Mounting evidence suggests at best two lackadaisical agencies, and, at worst, regulators kowtowing to the industries they’re supposed to oversee. It’s time for a congressional investigation to figure out what’s going on.

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In the latest near-disaster, a Horizon Air flight on Dec. 29 whizzed past four fuel tankers and ground crew at the Pullman, Wash., airport as it landed on a narrow taxiway rather than the runway where it should have been.

FAA investigators were then told by their senior managers not to bother listening to the cockpit voice recorder from the plane, according to a source cited by our investigative reporter Matthias Gafni.

The contorted explanation from the FAA: Listening to tapes after a mishap “could have a chilling effect on crew communications.” Got that? Pilots will stop talking in the cockpit because they know in advance that they’re about to make a major blunder and someone might later listen to what they said.

It’s a silly argument that only serves to protect errant pilots and hide critical evidence from investigators. Experts say the critical recordings can provide valuable information about what pilots were doing and thinking when they bungled a landing.

Meanwhile, the NTSB did not launch an investigation of the incident until a month later, only after Gafni started reporting on the agency’s indifference. The NTSB now says it will also review why it originally balked at investigating the mishap.

It’s about time. But the Keystone Cops routine has been appalling, especially given the even-more-horrifying nature of earlier incidents:

• An Air Canada plane nearly landed July 7 on a San Francisco taxiway where four fully loaded planes awaited takeoff.

• An Air Canada plane landed at SFO on Oct. 22 despite repeated orders to abort because of concerns that another plane had not cleared the runway.

• A Delta Air Lines plane nearly landed Nov. 29 on a taxiway occupied by a fully loaded jetliner.

Legitimately inquiring minds would be interested in one of the key pieces of evidence from each mishap, the cockpit voice recorders.

But the recordings from the first three incidents weren’t even preserved. Worse, federal law didn’t require preservation because the planes never actually landed on a taxiway or wrong runway.

Federal law should be amended to require preservation, but the FAA and NTSB have shown no interest in advocating for change.

The Horizon Air incident was different because the plane landed on a taxiway, meeting the legal criterion requiring preservation of the voice recording.

Yet, even then, the FAA wasn’t interested in listening to what the pilots were saying. And the NTSB at first didn’t even bother to investigate.

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None of this instills confidence that the two agencies responsible for air safety really care what happens.

— The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)