Aviation vs. Railroads: Why is FAA so much slower than FRA to address personal electronics distractions?

Last week, FAA posted in the Federal Register their Final Rule, Prohibition on Personal Use of Electronic Devices on the Flight Deck. Essentially, the new rule declares the obvious … that texting (or computer games or sharing pictures of your cute kids or porn files or whatever) is dangerous, distracting, and must cease immediately …or at least once the rule goes into effect on 4/14/14.

A discussion then developed at FlightAware.com. While most of the discussion participants were pilots and all had a keen interest in aviation, some of the participants were U.S. railroad professionals. They made a very interesting point: specifically, that very similar accident histories have produced very different outcomes by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) vs. the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In short, here is the comparison:

Rescue workers in front of the Metrolink locomotive lying on its side after penetrating the lead passenger car (left). (photo from Wiki)

FRA: On 9/12/08, a head-on collision at Chatsworth, CA killed 25, injured 135, and caused $7.1 Million in damages. The NTSB investigation revealed the locomotive engineer was texting and missed a safety signal. Twenty months later, on 5/18/10, FRA issued an NPRM rule proposal via the Federal Register. Fifteen comments were received. The Final Rule was posted to the Federal Register on 9/27/10, and went into effect on 3/27/11.

Thus, for an FRA rail safety failure related to a major accident, it took thirty months from accident to effective rule change.

FAA: On 8/27/06, Comair Flight 5191 took off from the wrong runway at Lexington, KY, then crashed, killing 49. The tower controller had failed to specify the runway and the pilots, evidently fatigued from a short night’s sleep, failed to notice they were on the wrong runway. The controller had nearly a full minute to look out the window and see the problem and ‘save’ the situation with a timely radio transmission. The tower controller failed and the accident happened. Seventy-seven months later (!!), on 1/15/13, FAA issued an NPRM rule proposal via the Federal Register. Sixty-three comments were received. The Final Rule was posted to the Federal Register on 2/12/14, and will go into effect on 4/14/14.

Thus, for an FAA aviation safety failure related to a major accident, it took ninety-two months from accident to effective rule change. Ninety-two months; yes, nearly eight years!

So, in summary, a railroad safety rule by FRA takes 30-months, while an essentially identical aviation safety rule by FAA takes 92-months.

Why does it take FAA so much longer to pass the new safety rules? Most likely, the delay is directly related to FAA (and industry) efforts to protect their financial bottom line: mistakes happen, people die, and those who might have saved the tragedy feel compelled to obscure their culpability, to protect their own interests. So, they maneuver to maximize distance from any risk/liability exposure. In other words, a conscious effort is made by aviation professionals — including some very highly paid FAA officials — to guarantee no accountability for system failures.