Summary of Congressional Hearing: “The State of Aviation Safety” Part II

by LeClairRyan

In Part I of this post, we summarized the statements of Subcommittee Chairman LoBiondo and FAA and NASA witnesses at the February 27 hearing on “The State of Aviation Safety” conducted by the Subcommittee on Aviation of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the U.S. House of Representatives.  In this Part II, we will briefly discuss the prepared and oral statements from NTSB, USDOT Office of Inspector General (OIG), and Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) officials.

NTSB: Aviation deaths in the U.S. decreased slightly from 416 in 2015 to 412 in 2016, with nearly 94% of these fatalities (386) occurring in general aviation (GA) accidents and the remainder primarily in part 135 operations (charters, air taxis, air tours, and air medical services when a patient is on board). Although the number of GA accident fatalities increased slightly to 386 from 378 in 2015, the fatal accident rate fell below 1 fatal accident per 100,000 flight hours for the first time in the NTSB’s 50-year history. The agency continues to advocate for actions that address its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements for 2017-2018. A specific aviation item included in the List is addressing loss of control in GA flights. The agency has continued to collaborate with the FAA and the aviation community to increase awareness, education, and training to reduce these accidents, which account for nearly 46% of all fatal fixed-wing GA accidents in the U.S. since 2008. Another List item calls for expanded use of data, audio/voice, and image recorders in all transportation modes, including GA and rotorcraft where these devices are not mandated.  The testimony also summarized several recent aviation accidents investigated by the NTSB, including the 2016 commercial hot air balloon crash in Texas resulting in 15 passenger fatalities – the deadliest U.S. aviation accident in 7 years; the 2015 crash in Ohio of a part 135 air taxi resulting in 9 fatalities and in which the NTSB determined the crew failed to follow basic SOPs and the aircraft was not equipped with recording device; and the 2017 collision between a small UAS and a U.S. Army helicopter in New York. Ongoing NTSB aviation accident/incident investigations include examining the aborted landing of an Air Canada flight on an active taxiway at San Francisco International Airport this past summer, as well as two actual runway incursions at the same airport.

OIG:   The FAA continues to demonstrate a strong commitment to improving safety oversight of the aviation system but it faces both new and longstanding safety oversight challenges. Among these challenges are utilizing objective risk-assessment tools to identify operational risks — including financial distress – experienced by regional airline operators, which account for 20% of all airline passengers. (For additional information on the OIG’s December 2017 audit on the FAA’s oversight of the regional airline industry, see the Plane-ly Spoken post of January 16, 2018, DOT v. FAA: Oversight of Regional Air Carriers).  Additional longstanding safety oversight challenges include the FAA’s process for monitoring suspected unapproved parts and runway incursions (SUPs).  With regard to the former, the FAA’s oversight is not effective due to weaknesses in recordkeeping and management controls to capture and accurately report SUP cases. Regarding runway incursions, there has been a nearly 83% increase in total incursions between fiscal years 2011 and 2017. The FAA also is facing challenges in developing regulations for the commercial UAS industry and overseeing their operations and mitigating risks as their integration in the airspace system continues.

ALPA: The 2010 legislation addressing pilot qualification and flight experience requirements, as well as science-based flight, duty, and rest requirements, and the resulting FAA implementing regulations, have improved commercial aviation safety and Congress should not act on proposals to change these requirements. In addition, there is an adequate supply of qualified pilots and a pipeline of new pilots to meet commercial aviation needs. Further, more needs to be done to mitigate the risks to aviation safety from hazardous materials by improving regulations and eliminating shipments of undeclared hazardous materials. Regarding UAS, Congress should remove the current statutory restrictions on the FAA’s ability to fully regulate all UAS, including small UAS flown by hobbyists, and work with the FAA to implement mandatory UAS identification and tracking capabilities. ALPA also urged the FAA to develop science-based flight, duty, and rest regulations for flight crews of all-cargo operations and remove the exemption of all-cargo operations from the Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting requirements in part 139 (Certification of Airports).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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