Aviation regulators announce recommendations – but not new rules – to reduce air crashes in Alaska


A seaplane at Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness in 1998 (Creative Commons photo by RCraig09)

Federal aviation regulators have announced some recommendations to make flying in Alaska safer. It’s an attempt to tackle the disproportionate share of Alaskan accidents, but the agency stops before imposing new safety rules on the industry.

There have been at least 21 people killed in plane crashes in the Ketchikan area alone since 2015, and federal accident investigators have called on the Federal Aviation Administration to work with the Alaskan aviation community to improve the aviation safety. On Thursday, the FAA announced recommendations from a year-long initiative that examined the challenges of flying in the 49th state.

First on the list is to add and improve the FAA weather station network to provide real-time data to pilots.

“When I was in flight school, I flew from Vero Beach to Savannah, GA for sweet tea and pecan pie, and it’s been about 270 miles. You have no less than 15 weather stations, ”said Lee Ryan, whose Ryan Air company serves more than 70 small communities in Alaska. “When I get home to Unalakleet, Anchorage to Unalakleet is about 340 miles away. You have four weather stations at this distance, ”he said.

Also on the list of recommendations is a “Comprehensive Alaska Airspace Navigation Strategy”. This includes defining low-level flight routes for small aircraft and improving navigation infrastructure such as GPS. The FAA also recommends updating aeronautical charts to add information on mountain passes.

Another recommendation to the FAA is to encourage carriers to equip their planes with an early warning system to prevent mid-air collisions and other types of accidents. The technology, known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, or ADS-B, transmits information about the aircraft’s position, altitude, and speed to nearby aircraft, ground stations, and satellites.

But the FAA broke a rule that would require carriers to install the systems.

One of the FAA’s lawyers online, Howard Martin, said the new regulations were outside the scope of this initiative.

“It was not a rule-making process. So it went outside of our charter – which is what we were supposed to do. These recommendations would be dealt with in a separate process, ”he said.

And that means the FAA’s recommendations fail to include two broad priorities long advocated by the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents. These include safety management systems – essentially, risk management protocols for airlines – and data logging devices for all aircraft carrying revenue passengers.

Congressman Don Young, who participated in the FAA’s call with reporters, said he was happy to see regulators and industry making practical recommendations.

“You came to the table with some ideas. You know, I go through this life with everyone – not everyone, a lot of people – bitch, have no suggestion. And you came up with some good suggestions, put them together, and you made a good report (to) present to the general public and to Congress, ”Young said.

He encouraged the FAA to seek additional funding for Alaskan security upgrades in the president’s next budget.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told reporters Thursday that Alaska is unique in that many communities are not served by roads all year round.

“Now, through this partnership and collaboration, we have a thoughtful and specific set of recommendations on how to improve safety in the state, where over 80% of communities are only accessible by air,” did he declare.

Absent from the deployment was the Transportation Safety Board investigating the accidents. In a statement, NTSB President Jennifer Homendy called the FAA recommendations a step forward, but said there was still room for improvement for Alaska.

“The FAA’s action today is a step forward in responding to Alaska’s unique place in aviation safety,” she said. “But there is still a long way to go to make air travel as safe in Alaska as it is in the rest of the country. We look forward to reviewing the recommendations.

The FAA says it is addressing some of the NTSB’s key remaining recommendations in a separate process.

“The FAA has initiated the rulemaking process to require Safety Management Systems (SMS) for on-demand / charter operators and operators conducting aerial surveys under Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. The FAA is also examining the feasibility of requiring all Part 135 operators to install flight data recorders on their aircraft, ”the agency statement read.

The FAA is expected to come up with new rules for charter and air tour operators next fall, according to a Federal Register notice.

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