Washington Report: NTSB Revises “Most Wanted” List

 - October 9, 2007, 4:53 AM

In one of her first acts as chairman of the NTSB, Ellen Engleman vowed to take a fresh look at the Board’s safety advocacy programs, including its “Most Wanted” safety improvements.

Each year since the list’s inception in 1990, the Safety Board has dutifully updated the topics, removing some and adding new ones. But one of the most vexing problems faced by aviation–runway incursions–has stubbornly remained on the “Most Wanted” list since it first appeared 13 years ago.

So Engleman, who came to the NTSB from a Transportation Department safety agency–the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA)–has spearheaded a coordinated effort that combines the NTSB’s investigations, recommendations and advocacy efforts. “We want results,” she said at a Board meeting in early May.
In an interview with AIN in late July, Engleman described the evolution of the “Most Wanted” list as confusing. She questioned whether it is a list of recommendations, a list of safety goals or a list of safety topics.

Recalling her tenure as administrator of RSPA, she said that pipelines were on the “Most Wanted” list for 12 years, and that RSPA got those off the list in less than a year “because we put our mind to it. As someone who has gotten something off the ‘Most Wanted’ list from the other side, I can assure you that it can be done.”

Not surprisingly, prevention of runway incursions remains on the “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements, as it has every year since 1990. Other aviation-specific items include reducing airframe structural icing and eliminating explosive mixtures in fuel tanks on transport-category aircraft. Three other items are multimodal: requiring automatic information recording devices, reducing human fatigue in transportation operations and improving child-occupant protection.

Runway incursion/ground collision of aircraft jumped onto the first list following an inordinate number of runway incursion accidents in the late 1980s, which resulted in substantial loss of life. While the FAA has completed actions on a number of important objectives to make the ground operation of aircraft safer, the NTSB said these incidents continue to occur with alarming and increased frequency.
“Until there is a system in place to positively control ground movements of all aircraft, with direct warning to pilots, the potential for this type of disaster will continue to be high,” the Safety Board warned.

In 1999 the NTSB asked the FAA to conduct a simulation of airport movement area safety system (AMASS) performance using data from several runway incursion incidents investigated by the board. The simulations showed that AMASS would not have generated warnings in sufficient time for controllers and flight crews to respond effectively and prevent the incidents.

Following the simulation, the FAA modified its position and has now stated that AMASS will not prevent runway incursions but, rather, runway collisions. According to the NTSB, the system as it is currently designed does not meet the safety goals of the original system promised by the FAA.

The agency has installed AMASS at 34 sites, and continues to install the airport surface detection equipment model X (ASDE-X) at other airports. This enhanced ASDE-X, which uses multilateration and display technology, will also be added at AMASS airports, thereby providing them with the same enhanced movement surveillance capability as ASDE-X airports.

The FAA told the NTSB that for airports not scheduled for either ASDE-X or AMASS systems, it has reviewed the technical performance of four potential ground movement safety systems. Two of those solutions– ground markers and addressable signs–are being considered for functional and operational testing in an airport environment.

“The FAA recently outlined a number of different initiatives and technologies being developed and deployed,” said the NTSB. “The primary emphasis appears to be to provide surface surveillance capability to all FAA control towers.”
In 1994 the NTSB added the reduction in airframe structural icing to the list following the crash of a twin-turboprop commuter airliner in Indiana, which took 68 lives. That prompted the Board to examine the issue of airframe structural icing and to conclude that the icing certification process had been inadequate.

The Board faulted the FAA for not requiring manufacturers to demonstrate the airplane’s flight handling characteristics under a realistic range of adverse ice accretion/flight-handling conditions and for not adopting a systematic and proactive approach to the certification and operational issues of turbine-powered driven transport-category airplane icing.

The Safety Board urged the FAA in March 2001 to expedite the pace of its work to revise the icing criteria for Part 23 and Part 25 aircraft because the recommendation had been issued more than 4.5 years earlier. A report by an Aviation Regulatory Advisory Committee (ARAC) is not scheduled for completion until sometime this year, about 6.5 years after the recommendation was first issued. Then the FAA will still need to develop and issue any related regulatory amendments.

Last January the NTSB asked the FAA to provide a schedule for completion of the recommended actions, expressing concerns about the length of time it was taking to complete action.

Eliminating explosive mixtures in fuel tanks on transport-category aircraft was added to the “Most Wanted” list following the investigation of the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in 1996. The Board noted that center-wing fuel-tank explosions have resulted in 346 fatalities, and said that operating transport-category airplanes with flammable fuel/air mixtures in fuel tanks presents an avoidable risk of explosion.

“A fuel-tank design and certification philosophy that relies solely on the elimination of all ignition sources, while accepting the existence of fuel-tank flammability,” the NTSB said, “is fundamentally flawed because experience has demonstrated that not all possible ignition sources can be predicted and reliably eliminated.” The Board has urged the FAA to require fuel-tank inerting in all new and existing transport-category aircraft and complete a rulemaking effort to preclude the operation of transport-category airplanes with explosive fuel-air mixtures in any fuel tank.

Engleman explained in late July that the NTSB, which includes three new members, has divided the country and safety topics for each of the five Board members to promote in talks with the states, industry and trade associations about the Board’s advocacy efforts. “I think you are going to see an aggressive pursuit of safety under the new Board,” she predicted.