More work ahead for FAA on ‘most wanted’ changes

 - July 2, 2007, 12:05 PM

NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker told the House aviation subcommittee last month that his agency is disappointed in the FAA’s response to five of the six aviation items on the Safety Board’s Most Wanted List of safety improvements.

Of the five transportation modes under the NTSB’s jurisdiction, aviation has by far the largest number of safety recommendations in which the Safety Board has classified the controlling agency’s response as “unacceptable.” The Safety Board has classified the FAA’s action on the sixth item–eliminating flammable fuel/air vapors in fuel tanks of transport-category aircraft–as “acceptable but progressing slowly.”

Peggy Gilligan, FAA deputy associate administrator of the Office of Aviation Safety, told the lawmakers that in many cases the FAA first has to design a solution to accomplish an NTSB safety recommendation. Such was the case with eliminating flammable fuel/air vapors in fuel tanks, a result of the crash of TWA 800 off Long Island in 1996. In the 11 years since the accident, there have been three more fuel tank explosions.

The five items the Safety Board red-flagged as “unacceptable” are reducing dangers to aircraft flying in icing conditions; stopping runway incursions; improving audio and data recorders and requiring video recorders on aircraft; reducing accidents caused by human fatigue; and improving crew resource management for Part 135 operations. Preventing runway incursions has been on the Most Wanted List since its 1990 inception.

While Rosenker complimented the FAA for accepting 81.6 percent of the Board’s recommendations, he said he would like to see the agency do better. Of 4,704 recommendations issued to the FAA since the NTSB’s 1967 inception, 2,802 have been closed as “acceptable action.”

There are currently 376 open recommendations to the FAA, 97 of them receiving an “open unacceptable” classification from the NTSB. The FAA’s initial response time to Board-issued safety recommendations over the past five years typically has been 97 days, said the Safety Board chairman.

At the outset of the hearing, Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said that the five unacceptable actions by the FAA leave him “unimpressed.” He added that he remains “disappointed and concerned” that many of these areas have been on the list for five, 10 or even 15 years.

Although preventing runway incursions is the most longstanding item on the Most Wanted List, reducing dangers to aircraft flying in icing conditions has been on almost as long. It stems from the 1994 in-flight icing encounter and subsequent loss of control and crash of a twin-turboprop airliner in Roselawn, Ind., which claimed 68 lives.

After that accident, the Safety Board called on the FAA to revise the icing criteria and icing testing requirements necessary for an airplane design to be approved within the U.S., and the operational requirements that specify under what icing conditions it is permissible to operate an aircraft.

Rosenker testified that 10 years ago the FAA referred this work to an Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) that provides input to the FAA on new regulations. In March 2002, six years after it started this work, the ARAC approved a concept to revise the icing criteria in the design requirements for new airplanes. Currently, he said, there are five rulemaking activities in progress or needed concerning icing.

“As meteorologists will attest, simply understanding some of these icing phenomena is difficult and complex,” Gilligan said. “And then determining how to address these phenomena to ensure safe aircraft operations takes time.”

Gilligan said that the FAA has taken a multi-pronged approach to the icing issue by taking immediate safety actions, as well as performing longer-term research to improve understanding of icing phenomena. The agency has issued more than 100 airworthiness directives to address multiple threats from icing on more than 50 different aircraft models.

National Air Transportation Association (NATA) president Jim Coyne told the aviation subcommittee members that the association supports the NTSB recommendation to improve the research and development of aircraft systems to more accurately recognize and respond to icing conditions.

But he said NATA remains concerned about efforts to significantly modify existing aircraft systems, particularly in aircraft that have successfully completed millions of safe flight hours with their current systems. He suggested that additional icing system requirements should remain forward-fitting (installed in new aircraft) and should not be required on the existing fleet.

Runway Incursions Remain a Top Priority
On the longstanding issue of runway incursions, Rosenker acknowledged that the FAA has been taking action to inform controllers of potential runway incursions, improve airport markings and install the Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS) and Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model X (ASDE-X) systems. While these systems are an improvement, he said, as designed they are not sufficient to prevent all runway incursions.

The deadliest U.S. runway incursion accident–a collision between a USAir Boeing 737 and a Skywest Fairchild Metroliner commuter at Los Angeles International Airport in February 1991–killed 34 people.

As recently as last January 5, a Frontier Airlines Airbus A319 and a Key Lime Air Metroliner were involved in a near collision at Denver International Airport. The pilot of the Key Lime Air Metroliner inadvertently entered the runway while the Frontier A319 was on approach to the same runway. As the Frontier flight descended out of the clouds, the pilot noticed the Metroliner on the runway and executed a missed approach. The airplanes missed colliding by about 50 feet.

A similar incident took place May 26 at San Francisco International Airport, when a SkyWest Brasilia nearly collided with a Republic Embraer E170 on the runway. The two airplanes missed each other by 30 to 50 feet.

Rosenker said he was encouraged by some test projects that the FAA is conducting to prevent runway incursions. One is runway status lights (RSL) that have been installed at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Roughly analogous to traffic lights, runway status lights are a series of runway lights that indicate whether the runways are clear.

Another project is an experimental system called the final approach runway occupancy signal (FAROS) at Long Beach/Daugherty Field in California. This system uses the precision approach path indicator (PAPI) lights in a flashing mode to warn the pilot that the runway is unsafe for landing. Visual approach slope indicator lights could be used as well.

“Information needs to be provided directly to flight crews as expeditiously as possible to prevent runway incursions,” Rosenker told the House panel. “The issue is one of reaction time. Safety Board investigations have found that AMASS is not adequate to prevent serious runway collisions because too much time is lost routing valuable information through air traffic control.”

In his testimony to the aviation subcommittee, Coyne cautioned that improvements such as RSL and FAROS, along with AMASS and ASDE-X, are not a panacea for solving all runway incursion incidents.

“A sustainable reduction in runway incidents must involve not only warnings of an imminent problem, but also include early intervention and analysis of the root cause of these incursions, particularly when such incursions involve ground support equipment,” he said. “Reducing human errors that lead to these incursions will have a profound impact at all airports, including the smallest general aviation airports.”

As the hearing was adjourned, Costello and Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, vowed that the lawmakers will convene hearings in the future to check on the status of the NTSB Most Wanted List.