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NTSB nudges FAA on Alaska flight safetyNTSB nudges FAA on Alaska flight safety

Editor's note: This article was updated February 28 to include Alaska aviation accident statistics from 2008 to 2017 that the NTSB noted in a news release announcing its safety recommendation to the FAA.

A new NTSB report says the FAA has failed to fully implement safety programs in Alaska and should set up a working group with the state’s aviation stakeholders to move things along.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

AOPA supports the safety recommendation that the NTSB issued on February 13, which documents examples of how efforts to enhance Alaska flight safety have broken down from the “silo-like nature” of the FAA’s organizational structure and other complications.

The recommendation emerged from a September 2019 roundtable discussion of Alaska charter operation safety—a topic that was on the NTSB’s “most wanted list” for safety gains—but expanded well beyond that aviation segment.

The NTSB, calling the status quo "unacceptable," announced the recommendation in a news release that noted that "from 2008 to 2017 the total accident rate in Alaska was 2.35 times higher than for the rest of the United States. The fatal accident rate in the state was 1.34 times higher, according to NTSB statistics." 

Although the roundtable zeroed in on Part 135 operations, "some of the proposals discussed, such as improved pilot training (particularly concerning CFIT avoidance) and consistently managing weather risks, are applicable to all operations in Alaska, which has a higher overall aviation accident rate than the rest of the United States,” the safety recommendation said. Richard McSpadden, executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, represented AOPA in the roundtable sessions.

The NTSB issues safety recommendations “following the investigation of transportation accidents and the completion of safety studies. Recommendations usually address a specific issue uncovered during an investigation or study and specify how to correct the situation. Letters containing the recommendations are sent to the organization best able to address the safety issue, whether it is public or private,” according to the NTSB website.

McSpadden, who highlighted the roundtable’s work on Alaska’s flight safety needs in an article in the November 2019 AOPA Pilot, welcomed the NTSB’s action.

“One of the themes that emerged from different panels was the desire for the FAA to establish a focal point for Alaska,” he said. “The intent was to unify the FAA’s response to needs for infrastructure and other concerns that are hampered by the FAA’s size and structure, which can make it difficult to implement a coordinated plan.”

The safety recommendation cited a case in point: “The manager of the FAA’s Planning and Requirements group offered as an example the recent decision to purchase more automated weather observing systems (AWOS) for Alaska, as part of the FAA’s reauthorization. Though funds had been earmarked to acquire new AWOSs, no funding was available for ongoing maintenance. The manager observed that ‘when we make decisions or we get things implemented, there’s consequences that roll down the hill…that all have to be thought out.’”

AOPA Alaska Regional Manager Tom George has long advocated for action to streamline the FAA’s responses to the state’s safety concerns, and was encouraged by the NTSB’s stand.

“The NTSB is touching on key points we have been making such as the AWOS-funding issue and the unacceptably low priority that has been given to a 2017 report on Alaska’s Performance Based Navigation Low Altitude Route System,” he said.

That PBN route-system report notes that “over 80 percent of Alaskan communities are not connected to the road network, and dependent on aviation for access to mail, food, medicine, and transportation,” and that “the majority of Alaskan operators have adopted satellite-based technology and wish for a modernizing” of the Alaska airspace system “to meet their PBN needs.”

Some of the infrastructure development projects in which AOPA and other industry groups have played a role or are actively working on include:

“While I think industry is working well with the individual components of the FAA, a coordinated effort on Alaska projects across the divisions would help us get some of these projects over the goalpost,” George said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Advocacy, NextGen, Airspace

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