Congress grills FAA over NTSB safety list
Aviation by far has the highest number of outstanding safety deficiencies of any form of transportation in the U.S., according to the NTSB, which authors an annual Most Wanted list of recommendations. Congress wants to know why.
Every year the NTSB updates its list of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements, divided among the five transportation modes over which it has jurisdiction and a sixth listed as intermodal.
Word that the FAA has been slow to react to the recommendations prompted the House aviation subcommittee to hold a hearing over the summer to question why the agency has so many “unacceptable” responses to NTSB safety recommendations.
NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker told the lawmakers that the Board is disappointed that five of the six aviation items on the Most Wanted list have earned an “unacceptable” classification, while the sixth is considered “acceptable but progressing slowly.”
The five items the Safety Board red-flagged as “unacceptable” are:
• reducing dangers to aircraft flying in icing conditions;
• stopping runway incursions (on the Most Wanted list since its 1990 inception);
• improving audio and data recorders and requiring video recorders on aircraft;
• reducing accidents caused by human fatigue;
• and improving CRM for Part 135 operations.
The item considered “acceptable but progressing slowly” is the elimination of flammable fuel/air vapors in fuel tanks of transport-category aircraft.
At the outset of the hearing, Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, said that he is “disappointed and concerned” that many of these recommendations have been on the list for five, 10 or even 15 years.
FAA Says It’s Addressing Longstanding Problems
Peggy Gilligan, FAA deputy association administrator of the Office of Aviation Safety, defended her agency, testifying 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 recommendation that stemmed from the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in 1996. In the 11 years since the accident, there have been three more fuel tank explosions.
Reducing dangers to aircraft flying in icing conditions has been on the list almost as long as preventing runway incursions. 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., as well as the operational requirements that specify under what icing conditions it is permissible to operate an aircraft.
Rosenker told the panel 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, 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 concerning icing in progress or needed.
Gilligan said that the FAA has adopted 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.
“As meteorologists will attest, simply understanding some of these icing phenomena is difficult and complex,” she said. “And then determining how to address these phenomena to ensure safe aircraft operations takes time.” Meanwhile, the FAA has issued more than 100 airworthiness directives to address multiple threats from icing on more than 50 different aircraft models.
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). 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.
Rosenker said he is 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. The RSL system is 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 at Long Beach/Daugherty Field in California. The system uses the precision approach path indicator lights in a flashing mode to warn the pilot that the runway is unsafe for landing.
“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.”
While he 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 was created in 1967, more than 2,800 have been closed as “acceptable action.”
There are currently 376 open recommendations to the FAA; the NTSB has given 97 of them an “open unacceptable” classification. The FAA’s initial response to Board-issued safety recommendations over the past five years typically has been 97 days, said Rosenker.
As the hearing was adjourned, Costello and Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, vowed that they will convene hearings in the future to check on the status of the NTSB Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements.