AINsight: FAA Should Get Serious about Alaska Safety

 - October 29, 2021, 10:18 AM

A newly released FAA report about flying safety in Alaska addresses some important issues and what can be done to improve the state’s dismal safety record. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the FAA’s Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative (FAASI) report that Alaskan aviators don’t already know. Worse, it’s likely that nothing will change unless some leadership backed by money takes on this monumental challenge.

Alaska is unique in that people live in places accessible only by air. They depend on aviation to a level a non-Alaskan can barely understand, thanks to easy availability of small commuter and charter aircraft, many operated by small companies, in the state.

High school kids routinely travel on charter airplanes to get to games and on field trips. Need a doctor? Your appointment may include a ticket on a commuter airline and a flight somewhere else to get medical attention. And everything you buy in Alaska likely arrived via aircraft, and prices reflect this extra cost.

Cost is a big factor in many of the efforts that are underway to improve flying safety in Alaska. Weather is probably the biggest factor directly affecting safety and, as the FAASI report points out, there is a dearth of official weather-reporting stations and the equipment needed for weather reporting that would allow more pilots to file and fly under instrument flight rules (IFR).

The problem is so acute that some operators aren’t equipping their aircraft for IFR operations because of the lack of weather reporting, which is required for flying IFR approaches.

So it’s a giant blame circle: operators complain that the FAA doesn’t spend money on commercially available weather-reporting equipment, and the FAA blames operators for not equipping their aircraft for IFR operations, which would spur the FAA to install more weather stations. The result is that many charter operations expect their pilots to fly in Alaska’s dodgy weather under visual flight rules (VFR).

Every time I think about this, I can’t help wondering if is it even possible to maintain legal cloud clearance while flying VFR in Alaska. We hear of so many accidents where pilots were flying in what seems like obvious IFR conditions but trying to do so VFR. How can this be legal? The regulations are clear about this.

Absent the FAA hiring a legion of inspectors who would take up a valuable seat in a small charter airplane to watch how pilots fly in real conditions, there is no way to tell. And simply telling pilots to maintain legal cloud clearance during their indoc training for flying charter probably isn’t going to do the trick because nothing would get delivered, people wouldn’t get to their destinations, and Alaska would grind to a halt.

To be fair, Alaska does have its share of beautiful weather days, and it’s not always gloomy and covered with scud-running-tempting clouds.

Here are some steps that might be a little more sensible.

First, we don’t need to spend more money on studies like the FAASI, as well-intentioned as it is. We already know what the problem is. What we need is a willingness to address the problem and funding to make the needed changes.

Money needs to be spent first on putting in automated weather reporting stations on every regularly-used airport. This might mean some pretty remote places—including dirt and gravel airstrips and many lakes and rivers. But the value of having current real weather information is enormous and is a huge missing link in Alaska flying safety.

This doesn’t have to be done by the government—communities are able to apply for FAA money to install the station and thus be part of their own locale’s safety equation. This installation funding doesn’t necessarily cover the cost of maintenance, though, so that should be addressed.

Second, charter operators need to get serious about safety and figure out how to accomplish their important missions within the strictures of FAA regulations. Safety management systems, if developed and used properly, can help.

There really shouldn’t be any difference between the safety practices and attitudes of a small charter operator and an airline—they both owe a duty to keep their customers alive.

Third, the FAA needs to take its job as the safety authority in Alaska as seriously as it does in the rest of the U.S. Not a single person was harmed in the recent situation where the FAA accused American Airlines of not complying with some maintenance requirements. Yet the FAA spent an enormous amount of money on examining the issue and writing a detailed report for an operator that runs what arguably is an extraordinarily safe airline. Couldn’t that money be put to better use elsewhere?

I understand that it’s hard to hire inspectors to work in Alaska, but when one inspector is responsible for 60 to 70 charter operators—and this is the current reality—you cannot expect them to stick around because their job is so fulfilling and rewarding. The FAA must pay inspectors commensurately for the work they do in challenging circumstances and hire enough inspectors to do a proper job of overseeing the industry that the FAA regulates.

Anything less than such a commitment is a clear sign that the FAA is simply ignoring what’s going on in Alaska and is willing to put up with a certain level of fatalities and injuries just because, “well, it’s Alaska.” That is unacceptable.

Finally, we have this terrific technology called ADS-B that was developed and tested extensively in Alaska. ADS-B vastly improves the ability of air traffic controllers to track aircraft and it also works as a system to deliver weather and traffic information right to where pilots need it—in the cockpit.

The FAA ought to carpet Alaska with ADS-B ground stations, but even this isn’t necessary. Aireon has placed ADS-B payloads on Iridium’s new Next satellites, and this allows air navigation service providers to tap into ADS-B surveillance information almost anywhere in the world, though Aireon doesn’t provide for transmission of weather and traffic information.

Of course, the FAA would have to pay Aireon for Alaska surveillance, and aircraft in Alaska would need to install ADS-B equipment with antennas mounted on top of the fuselage to see the satellites, but it could be done. Canada is already heading in this direction.

Alaska is in need of some concentrated attention from the FAA. It’s time for action, not more studies.