Washington Report

 - May 5, 2009, 5:06 AM

Although the U.S. remains the gold standard in aviation safety, a sharp rise in fatalities among on-demand air charter operations last year has raised a flag with the NTSB.

“While the overall aviation safety record of the United States is among the best in the world, the 2008 accident statistics reveal a mixed picture,” said Safety Board acting chairman Mark Rosenker. “We are particularly concerned about the spike in fatalities in on-demand air charter operations. There’s a lot of room for improvement in this area, and as evidenced by our recent forum on emergency medical service heli- copter accidents, we continue to do everything we can to identify the safety issues involved, and to advocate for the adoption of our recommendations, which will make the skies safer.”

On-demand flight operations (Part 135), which include air medical, air-taxi and air-tour flights, logged more than 3.6 million flight hours and had 56 accidents, killing 66 people–the highest number of fatalities since 2000. There were 43 deaths in 2007. The accident rate per 100,000 flight hours (1.52) remained virtually unchanged from 2007 (1.54).

Following release of the NTSB report last month, the nonprofit Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF) pointed out that in addition to air medical, air-taxi and air-tour flights, the air charter industry includes helicopter EMS and offshore work, single-engine piston-powered tour operations, just-in-time cargo carriers and long-range international passenger-carrying jets.

“This variation presents a unique challenge when attempting to draw safety conclusions,” explained ACSF executive director Jacqueline Rosser. “Today, the industry’s safety record is summed up in a single, all-encompassing analysis. It is incredibly difficult to identify safety issues, provide targeted recommendations and then measure the success of interventions if you can’t determine the safety record for each distinct aircraft or operational category.”

For example, the NTSB accident database shows that 26 of the fatalities in 2008 resulted from seven helicopter accidents. But there is no further analysis to put that particular fact into context.

“Knowing the helicopter accident rate would allow us to put into perspective the severity of the 2008 accident record,” Rosser said. “Right now, the NTSB cannot provide a Part 135 helicopter accident rate because the flight hours are not tracked by aircraft type.”  

The ACSF called for improved data collection and safety analysis for the Part 135 on-demand air charter industry to permit the NTSB to develop a more specific understanding of the industry than is available today.

“Developing the ability to analyze accident rates by type of aircraft or mission would provide a far clearer picture than we have today,” said Rosser. “It would allow voluntary safety actions, guidance, oversight and regulatory initiatives to be directed at the areas where they are most needed while permitting us to look into those operations with lower accident rates for possible best practices that can be more widely promoted and adopted.”

Overall, there were 1,559 accidents in general aviation in 2008, 275 of which were fatal for 495 people. That was one less fatality than in 2007. The GA accident rate per 100,000 flight hours was 7.11, up from 6.92 in 2007. In the past 20 years, the highest accident rate was 9.08 in 1994; the lowest rate was 6.33 in 2006.

The number of accidents involving large commercial carriers (Part 121) was 28 in both 2008 and 2007. In both scheduled and nonscheduled services, the airlines carried 753 million passengers on more than 10.8 million flights without
a passenger fatality.

In 2008, commuter airlines (which also operate under Part 135) that typically fly smaller turboprop aircraft made 581,000 flights, logging more than 290,000 hours. Those operators had seven accidents, none of which resulted in fatalities. This is an increase from three accidents in 2007.