updated 12/5/2008 3:03:05 PM ET 2008-12-05T20:03:05

The nation's two largest airlines have dropped out of a federal safety program that was designed to encourage voluntary reporting of pilot errors before they resulted in crashes.

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Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines quit the Aviation Safety Action Program, or ASAP, which allows pilots to admit mistakes without fear of being punished.

The acting chief of the Federal Aviation Administration said it was "disheartening" to see the programs end, which a leading safety expert blamed on lack of trust between labor and management.

American had taken part for 14 years, and its program was used as a model at other carriers in the U.S. and abroad.

The pilots' union at American, the Allied Pilots Association, charged that American was using the program to discipline captains for inadvertent safety lapses, putting their jobs at risk. The union sought language to strengthen job protections for pilots who reported errors.

"We will not accept any process that labels our pilots as reckless, and discipline for inadvertent safety events must stop," union official Kevin Cornwell said at the time.

Tim Wagner, a spokesman for AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, said Friday the company preferred not to change provisions of the program but that the union balked and refused to extend the agreement. He said a self-reporting system from NASA is still in place.

Wagner said ASAP doesn't have the day-to-day safety impact of such things as inspections and maintenance, "but it allows us to look at situations that have happened and make changes. We would love to see it renewed."

A similar dispute led Delta Air Lines Inc., the nation's largest carrier, to end its ASAP program in 2006, and subsidiary Comair also recently dropped out. Pilots at Delta and Comair are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association.

William R. Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., said Friday that ASAP is vital to maintain the improvement in airline safety over the past several years.

"These programs catch little problems before they become big problems," he said.

While the pilots' reports are confidential, Voss, a former FAA official, said ASAP helped identify certain runway configurations that can be confusing, which was a factor cited in the 2006 crash of a Comair jet in Kentucky. The accident killed 49 people.

Voss said he didn't want to blame the unions or the airlines for the demise of the programs, but attributed it to deteriorating labor-management relations in the industry.

Acting FAA chief Robert A. Sturgell said in a speech last month that voluntary disclosure programs such as ASAP are critical for improving safety.

"It is disheartening to see some of our carriers and pilot unions abandoning these programs at a time when we need them the most," Sturgell said. "I encourage you to separate safety from the labor issues and put these programs back in place."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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