FAA ‘Foot-dragging’ Miffs NTSB

 - February 8, 2007, 4:51 AM

The NTSB expressed disappointment last month over the FAA’s alleged foot-dragging on several safety recommendations, and the safety agency changed the classifications of the FAA’s responses from “acceptable” to “unacceptable.”

In a session to update its “Most Wanted” list of transportation safety improvements, the NTSB said that the government should be doing more to prevent accidents and enhance safety for the traveling public across all modes of transportation. The Safety Board removed two items from the list, one because action on it is almost complete, and the other because the Federal Railroad Administration refused to adopt the recommended safety enhancement.

In aviation, the Board reviewed the status of recommendations on five issue areas– runway incursions; aircraft icing; fuel/air vapor in fuel tanks; audio, data and video recorders; and child restraints. It said that the aviation, marine and pipeline industries are moving too slowly on hours-of-service regulations.

The Board was especially concerned about progress on reducing runway incursions, and it made special notice of a near collision at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in August involving a Boeing 747 and a Boeing 737 that ATC did not report as an operational error.

“The fact that such incidents are not being reported casts doubt on the FAA’s claims that the runway incursion rate is declining,” NTSB chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said. “The FAA needs to review its reporting process.”

The LAX incident occurred when a tower controller cleared a Southwest 737 to take off from the same runway on which an Asiana 747 had been cleared to land. While on short final, the Asiana pilot spotted the Southwest airplane and went around.

The incident grabbed enough of the NTSB’s attention that the Board created a computer-generated re-enactment and cockpit voice recorder voiceover of the incident that was shown at the meeting and replayed later that day on some television outlets.

The FAA claimed the incident wasn’t reported because the agency was still investigating how to properly classify it. The NTSB was not impressed with that answer, and it changed the classification of the FAA’s response from “open-acceptable” to “open-unacceptable.”

Prevention of runway incursions has been on the NTSB’s most wanted list since the Safety Board launched the list in 1990, following an inordinate number of runway incursions in the late 1980s that resulted in substantial loss of life.

The FAA has made considerable progress installing its airport movement area safety system (AMASS) at 34 sites and it is continuing to install the airport surface detection equipment model X (ASDE-X) at other airports. These systems provide warnings to air traffic controllers, who must then radio flight crews; the NTSB keeps prodding the FAA to find a system that will warn the individual flight crews directly.

Meanwhile, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association also accused the FAA of dragging its feet on deploying ASDE-X, which provides controllers with an all-weather, seamless airport surface surveillance system.

But those systems would not have been of much help in the recent incident at Los Angeles, because the Asiana 747 was airborne and approaching and was not on the airport’s surface area.

The accident is eerily reminiscent of a 1991 runway collision at LAX in which a USAir 737 was cleared to land on Runway 24L, and a Skywest Fairchild SA-227 Metroliner commuter had been positioned at an intersection and told to hold. Thirty-four people were killed in the crash.

Another longstanding “Most Wanted” item is the reduction of airframe structural icing, first added more than eight years ago after the 1994 crash of an American Eagle ATR 72 twin-turboprop regional airliner in Indiana took the lives of all 68 people on board.

That accident prompted the Board to examine the issue of airframe structural icing and to conclude that the icing certification process had been inadequate. It recommended expedited research and upgraded airplane design and certification standards. Last month, the Board changed the classification from open-acceptable–but progressing slowly–to open-unacceptable, based on the FAA’s lack of progress.

Another NTSB recommendation on the “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements calls for interim measures to reduce flammable fuel/air vapor in fuel tanks and, over the longer term, airplane design changes to eliminate the generation of such vapor.
Due to the lack of FAA initiatives on interim measures, the Board decided to reclassify the short-term recommendation from open-acceptable to open-unacceptable. On the longer-term recommendation, the Board found the FAA’s response acceptable, saying it anticipates that the FAA will begin the regulatory process to require a flammability-reduction system in the near future. But overall, the Board noted that implementation was progressing too slowly.

For flight information recorders in aircraft, the NTSB earlier called for at least two hours of audio recording capability, back-up power sources and a requirement for video recorders in the cockpit to give investigators more information to solve complex accidents. While the Board noted the FAA is making some progress on new recommendations in this area, it retained the overall classification of open-unacceptable response.

The NTSB revisited the topic of child restraints on airplanes in August, when the FAA’s response–or lack thereof–caused the Safety Board to reclassify the recommendation from open-acceptable action to open-unacceptable.

The Board first recommended in 1995 that the FAA require infants and small children to be restrained in a manner appropriate to their size during takeoff, turbulence and landing. The Board added the issue to the most wanted listed after an infant died when the mother lost her grip on the baby during a US Airways crash in Charlotte, N.C.

Under a recommendation for all modes of transportation, the Board recommended that the aviation, marine and pipeline industries set limits on hours of service, provide predictable work and rest schedules, and consider human sleep and rest requirements. The NTSB said it received varied responses from federal agencies, but overall classified it as acceptable. But it warned that implementation is progressing too slowly.