Making gumbo

April 1, 2006

AOPA Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg served in the U.S. Air Force as a missile launch officer.

Some months ago, I suggested that politics ought not to be cloaked in the critical garb of safety (see " Safety Pilot: There Is No Safety in Politics," November 2005 Pilot). A small-town newspaper cited every aircraft crash that had occurred in the county over the previous several decades as the rationale for bringing a control tower to a busy general aviation airport. Safety has its place as does politics, but mixing the two frequently leads to a smelly gumbo that does not serve the public well. The dividing line can be thin or it can be blatant. You be the judge as to whether the following is a legitimate safety concern.

The Air Transport Association (ATA) represents many of the nation's airlines in Washington, D.C. It is generally well reasoned with its message but late last year, perhaps after ingesting too many financial-disaster cocktails as several of its members went into bankruptcy, ATA suddenly decided that very light jets (VLJs) posed a significant risk to the traveling public. VLJs are the new breed of small jet that will carry from four to six people and cost one-half to one-third of today's smallest jets. There is much speculation that they could become a viable air-taxi alternative.

Below is partial testimony given by the ATA's vice president of operations and safety before the U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Safety was the purported topic.

"Instead of being reactive and establishing safety goals based on the most recent accident or incident, the industry has learned to use the wealth of hard data accumulated by all stakeholders — the FAA, NTSB, and air carriers — to drive the safety agenda so that the most serious risks are identified and solutions developed in an orderly, efficient, and effective manner. This data-driven, risk-assessment approach to safety has paid tremendous dividends already. It is the key to future safety improvements and continued accident prevention."

The opening statements were laudable. The implication was that hard science indicates a budding problem with VLJs, but at this point there is only supposition because not a single VLJ has been delivered. It is a fact that nonturbine Part 91 (personal) flight operations do not enjoy the same safety record as the airlines. The aircraft are different, the airports are different, and the objectives are different. One size does not fit all. The turbine side of the house, especially pure jet operations, has an excellent safety record rivaling or exceeding that of the air carriers. We agree on the importance of accident prevention — it's the rhetoric that dresses the wolf of business in the motherhood of safety that is disingenuous. Keep reading.

"Looking ahead, we see the possibility of new risks emerging. We urge the FAA to be mindful of these emerging issues and their potential impact on commercial aviation safety. We discuss two such issues here. The first is the imminent introduction of high-performance lightweight jets for personal use and air-taxi operations. These jets, commonly referred to as 'very light jets' (VLJs) or 'microjets,' will operate in the same airspace as large commercial jets, but at a slower speed. Today, 2,500 VLJs reportedly are on order, and the FAA estimates that 4,500 VLJs will be operating by 2016. Others estimate even greater numbers of these aircraft. Honeywell, for example, forecasts 8,000 units by 2018."

FAA traffic forecasts have been notoriously inaccurate, and a few years ago the skies were predicted to be black with regional jets. At the time the airlines rushed to equip only to succumb to very high seat costs per mile and park them rapidly. Fuel expense and high lease payments took their toll. Taking manufacturer projections as gospel is probably not the most accurate quantitative approach, especially when the estimated population potential ranges from 2,500 to 8,000. That's a loose forecast that falls more in the category of a wild guess. It seems like rather flimsy evidence to be presenting to the Senate on such an important topic.

Crowding issues in the transportation system abound, and have much to do with runway capacity at 30 or so of the largest airports where the airlines do most of their business and where GA forms a miniscule percentage of traffic. GA is not the problem. Reliever airports were contemplated for just such purposes and the ATA has concerns there as well.

"The emergence of these aircraft raises a number of questions that must be addressed: How will the FAA ensure that VLJ pilots, particularly private pilots operating their own (or jointly owned) microjets, obtain and maintain the skills needed to operate safely in commercial airspace? Are current pilot certification standards appropriate for this new generation of aircraft?"

This may surprise the ATA, but certification standards are the same for all pilots who require a type rating. Boeing 777, Airbus 320, or VLJ, if it's turbojet powered, the same rules apply — you must fly to airline transport pilot standards even with a private pilot certificate. Single-pilot certification, which only applies to certain jet aircraft and will probably apply to all VLJs, is even more stringent.

I doubtless have delusions of adequacy in understanding the airspace structure, but what is "commercial airspace?" I always thought that the airspace belonged to the people, not to the airlines or the government, and a system was established to allow all to operate in it appropriately. I suspect AOPA has a few observations that will not jibe with ATA on this, and we'll leave that for them to discuss.

The safety record of single-pilot operations, as near as we can tell because accurate exposure data are tough to come by, is slightly worse than it is for crewed operations. However, in no airline or GA accident case has there been any implication that having only a single pilot in an aircraft was a major or minor contributing factor. Two crewmembers usually improve safety but, very important, this fact does not make single-pilot operations unsafe.

Let's get to the implied safety issue. Collisions are a bad thing between airliners or anything else. Traffic alert and collision avoidance systems (TCASs) were mandated to be on board air-carrier aircraft in 1991, and there hasn't been a collision between a U.S. airliner and a GA aircraft since. Many private turbine and even high-end piston aircraft have or are getting versions of TCAS. The air traffic control system does a spectacularly good job of separation, and in the high altitudes where the ATA concern seems to be based, the system has worked flawlessly. According to a rule implemented just last year, all aircraft operating above 29,000 feet (Flight Level 290) are required to operate under reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM). This means installing special equipment and conducting pilot training. Under the old rules, aircraft operating above FL290 needed 2,000 feet vertical separation. Under RVSM, that was reduced to 1,000 feet, just like all IFR operations below FL290. This doubled available altitudes, with a significant increase in capacity — something conveniently overlooked in the testimony.

All the VLJ manufacturers are keenly aware of the safety issues regarding pilot competency in this new breed of aircraft. So are the insurance underwriters. Both groups stand to lose huge amounts of money in lawsuits and claims if the system does not keep marginally qualified pilots from operating solo. You heard it here first — there will be an occasional loss, just as we have today in jet aircraft, and yet, it's OK to avoid a Chicken Little response to individual failures versus systemic flaws.

Don't misunderstand — we need to take reasonable precautions, not hyperactive ones. There will be an inevitable VLJ learning curve, just as the airlines have gone through in their introduction of new types of equipment. But we are not starting from ground zero. Type ratings for single pilots have been around for more than three decades, since Cessna first introduced the Citation. Those standards have been well tested and the safety record is excellent. The underwriters will continue to insist on that.

"Are current maintenance standards for privately owned aircraft appropriate for this new generation of aircraft? Will FAA maintenance surveillance programs ensure the safety of these aircraft if owned and operated privately as well as by air-taxi operators?"

There is no indication that currently accepted maintenance practices for noncommercial jet aircraft are in any way inadequate. Zero, zip, nada. How this impacts the safety of the air carriers is a mystery to me. If ATA knows something that the rest of us don't, let's see it.

"Are the second- and third-tier airports, where these aircraft are expected to operate, fully prepared to respond to a safety incident?"

Smaller airports will operate as they always have, and the economics-safety equation will dictate what is appropriate. The airlines would certainly like to have everyone mandated to their standard and expense. For Part 91 operations this is inappropriate. This has little to do with safety and everything to do with competition. The concern that the flying public will shun air carriers because of an occasional VLJ crash at a non-Part 139 (noncommercial) airport is a remarkable jump of logic.

"These are just a few of the questions that must be resolved to ensure VLJs do not have an adverse impact on safety. In addition to these basic safety issues, there is the question of funding safety oversight of this sector. The scheduled airline industry contributes 95 percent of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF), and in fiscal year 2006 will pay 82 percent of the total FAA budget. Congress must ensure the VLJ sector pays its fair share into the AATF not only in relation to its use of the air traffic control system, but also to cover related safety oversight. The airlines should not subsidize safety oversight of the VLJ sector, including both private use and air-taxi operations."

Now we get to the heart of the matter — money and competition. Again, I'll leave this to AOPA to address. The airlines are understandably concerned about a potential financial threat that VLJs may pose, especially if they arrive in the significant numbers projected by some manufacturers and they are able to operate safely. If that happened, the airlines could lose market share, especially among the most profitable business customers. Point-to-point transportation from nonhub airports, far fewer security hassles, and much less wasted time are key attractions. A business concern certainly, but a far cry from nonexistent safety issues that have been hastily conjured up to present to Congress. If the air-taxi safety record falls short, something we certainly hope won't happen, the airlines will be the benefactors as passengers avoid bad operators.

Capacity and financial issues should stand or fall on their own merits. It is important to identify nonissues and discard them quickly so that valuable resources aren't wasted, so I guess this is a left-handed compliment (with apologies to southpaws everywhere) to ATA. Just wish they had picked a less important venue to float the idea. Safety and sausage (politics) are frequently confused and gumbo is far better made in Louisiana than Washington.