FAA Medical Chief Criticized by Pilots Union and Airline Officials
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Federal Aviation Administration’s top medical officer is under fire from pilot groups and airlines which are accusing him of having approved scores of airline pilots for service despite questions about their medical fitness.
The leadership of the Air Line Pilots Association has clled for the resignation of FAA air surgeon, Dr. Frank Austin Jr. A House subcommittee also has begun looking into the FAA doctor’s handling of pilot recertification cases.
″The view of the organization is that Dr. Austin should resign,″ said Marty Martinez, a spokesman for the pilots’ union. However, the union, which represents some 40,000 pilots, has not taken any formal action to seek Austin’s ouster.
Representatives of the airlines also have met with senior FAA officials to complain that many of the pilots certified by Austin pose a potential safety hazard.
Austin, 62, a former Navy flight surgeon and test pilot who was appointed to his FAA post in October 1984, declined to discuss the controversy surrounding his certification of pilots when reached at his FAA office.
″Don’t think I’m trying to hide. I’m not,″ Austin said. He said he didn’t want to comment on the matter until first talking to the FAA press office.
FAA Administrator Donald Engen continues to support the surgeon.
Engen ″feels strongly that Frank Austin ... has both the medical experience and the technical qualifications to make these (pilot certification) decisions,″ said FAA spokesman Stephen Hayes.
Federal regulations require commercial pilots to undergo annual stringent medical exams given by private physicians who are certified by the FAA. When a pilot fails his examination, requiring his pilot’s certificate to be terminated, he may appeal the decision to the FAA’s air surgeon, who has the authority to exempt the pilot from certain provisions if the pilot can show he will not endanger air commerce.
FAA spokesman Bob Buckhorn acknowledged that Austin, since taking over the post, has ″liberalized″ the certification process. And Antony Broderick, the air surgeon’s boss, acknowledged that Austin ″has a different view (from his predecessor) of what is and what is not appropriate″ in approving the pilot recertification appeals.
But both Buckhorn and Broderick insisted that Austin’s decisions have not compromised safety.
Medical experts within the airline industry as well as some physicians who have been advisers to the FAA on recertification cases expressed different views, however. They said in interviews that Austin during the last two years has approved scores of appeals from pilots who previously would not have been recertified to fly, especially in cases involving heart problems.
″It’s almost as if he doesn’t think anyone should go uncertified,″ said Gary Kohn, corporate medical director at United Airlines. Kohn said ″at least a third or half of what he (Austin) sent us ... are inappropriate from an air- safety point of view.″
The chief medical officer at American Airlines, Robert Wick, said that while Austin has reduced a backlog of pilot appeal cases during the last two years, ″he has overruled his own staff frequently and made his own judgment sometimes without a whole lot of medical consensus and advise.″
Wick said American also has refused to put some of the pilots, who were deemed suitable for flying by Austin, back into the cockpit, because of safety concerns. ″He’s issuing certificates to people who never, never in the past would have regained their medical certificates,″ Wick said in an interview.
Among the examples of appeals that have been approved under Austin, according to some of his critics were:
-A 53-year-old United DC-10 co-pilot who had suffered a heart attack that caused ″extensive damage″ to the heart. An FAA advisory panel concluded the pilot was a ″high risk″ of having another attack.
-An American Airlines pilot who had an artifical valve put into his heart and was required to take a blood thinner.
-A pilot for a major airline who was required to take insulin because of diabetes. Federal regulations prohibit anyone using insulin from holding a commercial pilots certificate.
While both American and United have refused to allow these two pilots to fly, aviation medical officers expressed concerns that some other airlines may be less stringest in their review of the FAA-approved certificate.
Richard Stone, the head of the pilot union’s task force on medicine, said Austin should resign because ″he flies in the face of all good medical opinion″ on pilot certification cases.
″Austin is helping a few people (get recertified), but he’s putting a large number of people at risk,″ Stone, a Delta Air Lines pilot, said in an interview from Atlanta.
Some of the strongest criticism stemmed from Austin’s alleged disregard for an advisory panel of medical experts who are supposed to help the FAA decide some of the most sensitive appeal cases, especially those involving cardiovascular problems.
Austin briefly disbanded the panel, which included prominent cardiologists, but then re-formed it under pressure from the industry, officials said.
Last August, Dr. Myrvin Ellestad, chief of cardiology at Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif., resigned from the panel with a scathing letter to Austin that accused the FAA air surgeon of threatening air safety.
″If you proceed with your present policy, I believe it will only be a matter of time before we lose a 747 full of passengers due to a sudden cardiac event in the cockpit,″ Ellestad wrote. ″You are certifying cardiacs of all classes that I consider unfit to fly.″
Meanwhile, the investigations subcommittee of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, which has oversight authority of the FAA, has begun looking into allegations about the way the FAA is handling pilots’ medical certificate appeals.