By Lee Hyo-sik
The government has decided to conduct unscheduled inspections of pilots to more effectively check whether they comply with flight operation and safety regulations while navigating aircraft.
The move comes as pilots have been caught drinking alcohol in cockpits or engaging in other unprofessional conduct. Industry watchers say some aviators often fail to follow flight manuals or abide by safety rules.
However, pilots have shown a lukewarm response toward the government’s latest move, arguing they place top priority on ensuring the safety of airplanes and passengers. They claim the planned random inspection would not achieve its intended goal and only hinder them from performing their duties.
The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said Thursday that it has carried out unannounced inspections of pilots at the country’s seven airlines — two national flagship carriers and five low-cost carriers — since January.
It said nine aviation safety inspectors have and will randomly board both cargo and commercial aircraft to observe how pilots operate.
“In the past, inspectors had to notify airlines of inspection schedules in advance to check on pilots. So, it was almost impossible to accurately monitor whether they followed flight manuals and abided by safety rules,” said Chang Man-heui, director of the ministry’s aviation safety division. “But nine of our inspectors obtained a special permit from the Ministry of Justice in January, empowering them to enter a cockpit at anytime, just like pilots and flight attendants.”
Chang said the inspectors have been closely examining whether pilots are drunk or not before boarding an airplane, adding three pilots under the influence of alcohol were stopped from operating a plane over the past year.
In June last year, a drunken Eastar Jet pilot was stopped from boarding an aircraft at Gimpo International Airport. The plane was bound for Jeju but due to the incident, it was delayed by more than an hour, with the budget carrier scrambling to find a substitute pilot. The ministry suspended the pilot’s license and imposed fines on the company.
A month earlier, an Asiana Airlines pilot under the influence of alcohol was also caught by inspectors before boarding a plane. In October 2010, a Korean Air pilot was suspended from his duties for drinking before a flight.
“Inspectors can check pilots before they board a plane. But it is not as easy to monitor what pilots do in the cockpit. We think it is necessary to send our personnel into cockpits and examine how they perform their job,” the director said. “Pilots should remain vigilant at all times to ensure flight safety.”
Chang said inspectors looked into three low-cost carries during the Lunar New Year holiday, adding they will soon board both cargo and commercial airlines operated by Korean Air and Asiana Airlines.
“We will compile what inspectors have found by the end of this year and make the findings public. We are positive that the strengthened monitoring of pilots will boost flight safety,” he said.
Pilots are raising doubts about the effectiveness of such measures, insisting it will not help flight safety.
“Aviators need to pay full attention to flight operation. But if an inspector is in the cockpit observing our behavior, we will surely be distracted,” Korean Air pilot Lee Kyu-nam said. He was a former vice president of the Korean Air Flight Crew Union. “But the bottom line is that inspectors have the right to do what they have to do. We respect that. But what I am trying to say is having them in the cockpit does not help improve flight operation and safety.”
Lee then said the government should also pay more attention to the plight of aviators. “We are always tired from flying long hours. We should be given enough break time to become operational again. The government should make more efforts to improve our welfare. This is a more effective way to ensure flight safety.”
국토해양부는 이달부터 7개 국적항공사의 항공기 조종실에 대한 불시점검을 강화한다고 9일 밝혔다.
저비용항공사 단거리 국제선부터 우선 실시한 후 대한항공, 아시아나항공 등 대형항공사의 화물기와 여객기로 확대할 계획이다.
국토부에 따르면 이번에 실시하는 불시점검은 항공안전 감독관이 불시에 조종실 내 관찰석에 탑승해 조종사의 비행절차준수 여부를 모니터링하고 평가한 후 필요할 경우 제도개선 등을 조치할 수 있도록 한 제도다.
그동안은 월간 점검계획을 항공사에 사전 통지하고 예고된 특정시기에 점검을 받도록 했다.
이에 따라 항공사는 교관급 조종사를 배치하는 등 충분히 준비된 상태에서 점검을 받아와 운항현장의 실제 안전수준 평가에 한계가 있었다.
국토부는 지난달부터 법무부 협조로 국토부 소속 전문 항공안전감독관 9명에 대해 상시 조종실 탑승이 가능한 승무원등록증을 교부받아 저비용항공사 3곳에 대해 불시점검을 시범적으로 실시한 바 있다.
국토부 관계자는 "불시점검을 통해 나타난 안전미흡사항은 정부, 항공사가 참여하는 워크숍 등을 통해 정보를 공유하는 등 일선 조종사의 비행안전 의식이 고취되는 여건을 마련할 계획"이라고 말했다.