DOT Watchdog Gives FAA Fresh 'Doors Off' Upbraiding

 - December 21, 2020, 4:45 PM
Photo: Tuckamore Aviation

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (IG) criticized the FAA’s supervision of “doors-off” helitour operators in a recently released audit report. That audit was requested by New York’s two U.S. senators in 2019 following the March 2018 fatal crash of a FlyNYON doors-off tour.

In that accident, all five passengers remained strapped in and drowned after the Airbus AS350B2, operated for FlyNYON by Liberty Helicopters, successfully autorotated into the East River, but then rolled inverted after its emergency pop-out floats failed to fully deploy. Physical and electronic accident evidence showed that the passengers were unable to extricate themselves from the commercial, off-the-shelf supplemental restraints they were wearing.

The NTSB subsequently discovered that the FAA had not evaluated these passenger harnesses and the FAA subsequently placed new restrictions for the restraint systems on doors-off flights that included requirements that operators obtain an FAA letter of authorization (LOA) for the restraint systems used and that those restraints “can be quickly released by a passenger with minimal difficulty and without impeding egress from the aircraft in an emergency.”

The IG concluded the FAA “did not maintain effective and consistent oversight of open-door helicopter operations to maintain the safety of air tour passengers; FAA lacks an effective process to review, authorize, and ensure the safe use of supplemental restraints for open-door helicopter operations; and FAA inspectors lack sufficient guidance to oversee operator use of supplemental passenger restraints.” While the IG noted that the FAA has made some progress on the issue via the LOA requirement, it concluded, “that that authorization process is still-evolving and important risk information has been overlooked. Also, FAA does not currently provide the guidance inspectors need to ensure operators are using and maintaining the supplemental restraints the agency has authorized.” 

The IG recommended that the FAA issue a final rule on supplemental passenger restraints; require review of those restraints via standardized checklist to obtain an LOA; define aviation-specific certification load standards for the restraints; revise LOA authorization procedures so applications have local inspection oversight; and provide inspector guidance with regard to the use of supplemental restraints by both Part 135 and 91 operators. 

Doors-off, or “shoe selfie,” tours are gaining in popularity as helitour operators look to attract a younger clientele and increase revenue in increasingly more restrictive, hostile political and economic environments, particularly in the New York City area. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D) has been a persistent critic of civil helicopters in his state, but particularly helitours, repeatedly calling them “dangerous.”

The shoe-selfie tours also have long been criticized by leading industry and safety groups, including the Helicopter Association International (HAI). The IG noted in its audit report that “air tours accounted for 10 percent of all helicopter operations in the United States for the last 10 years but make up the fifth-largest category for flight hours—behind aerial observation/law enforcement, training, air ambulance, and off-shore flights. The Department of the Interior reported that a total of 47,145 air tours were conducted over the National Park system in 2018—one of the only places where air tour reporting is required.” 

Via way of formal audit response from FAA director of the office of audit and evaluation H. Clayton Foushee, the agency said that it agreed with most of the IG’s recommendations, but noted, “When developing its submission and evaluation processes for non-required SPRS (supplemental passenger restraint systems), the FAA recognized that acceptable and established minimum standards for supplemental restraints already exist and are in use in other FAA evaluation scenarios and in many occupations. The FAA considers these existing standards when reviewing submission packages. Additionally, FAA recognizes that SPRS are carry-on devices; as a result, the FAA does not certify them. In this regard, SPRS are not subject to the high aviation load factors the FAA applies when evaluating and approving seats and seatbelts. This distinction is appropriate, as SPRS are designed to keep an individual inside the helicopter, while approved seats and seatbelts are designed for emergency landing conditions.”