‘More Risk; Less Oversight’ Ought To Be Scrapped

The federal agency responsible for oversight of the nation’s on-demand air charter operators basically received a “D” grade, and would have probably received a failing grade if illegal flights were included in the review.

This is about the only conclusion that can be made, following a Department of Transportation Inspector General’s (DOT/IG) report of 13 July, whose title sums up the problem in a nutshell: “On-Demand Operators Have Less Stringent Safety Requirements and Oversight Than Large Commercial Air Carriers” (Report No. AV-2009-066).

The report was issued about two weeks before the 28 July hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) into the fatal crash of a Cessna 500 charter at Oklahoma City. Indeed, the DOT/IG report was mentioned at the hearing, primarily because the flight wasn’t noted in its report. The Cessna 500 was operating illegally as a Part 91 general aviation flight instead of what it really was, a Part 135 on-demand/for-hire flight with revenue passengers. (See Aviation Safety Journal, ‘Bird Strike Investigation Reveals Loosey-Goosy Operation’)

Had this flight been included in the DOT/IG’s review, it would have added to the fatal accidents and the death toll. To be sure, the addition would not have appreciably worsened an already dismal record. According to the DOT/IG:

“Since January 2003 on-demand operators have been involved in 95 fatal accidents, which resulted in 249 deaths. [5 more would only amount to 2% of the carnage.]

“Between 2000 and 2008, the fatal accident rate for on-demand operators was 50 times high than that of commercial [Part 121] carriers.”

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How do we explain the difference between the enviable record of the Part 121 carriers and the scandalous toll of the Part 135 operators? The answers are to be found in the riskier Part 135 operating environment coupled to less oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The DOT/IG noted that a Part 121 carrier with 10 airplanes received 199 FAA inspections in 2008. A Part 135 operator with 17 aircraft was inspected just 8 times in the same period.

Beyond the number of inspections, on-demand operators generally have more risk factors inherent to their operations.

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Despite the greater risks, regulations for on-demand operators are far less rigorous than those for scheduled, commercial airlines in key areas, such as flight crew requirements, aircraft equipment, and maintenance inspections.

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For example, regarding regulatory differences in crew requirements, the DOT/IG observed that safety training is not required for flight attendants of aircraft carrying 19 or fewer passengers:

“A February 2005 accident in Teterboro, New Jersey, demonstrated the value of flight attendant training and the potential impact to flight safety. An on-demand passenger jet crashed on take-off, which caused 14 injuries – 4 of them serious – and destroyed the aircraft. The NTSB’s investigation found that not all passengers were wearing their seatbelts when the take-off roll began, passengers did not receive a safety briefing, and the cabin aide was not able to open the main cabin door and conduct a professional evacuation.

“The NTSB concluded that the cabin aide’s training did not adequately prepare her to perform her assigned duties. In contrast, flight attendants on commercial air carriers must be able to perform an emergency evacuation and be capable of using any emergency equipment installed on the aircraft. The importance of this training was demonstrated in January 2009 when the flight attendants and crew of US Airways flight 1549 safely evacuated all 150 passengers after a landing in New York’s Hudson River.”

Regarding latent risks in operations, the FAA uses the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS) for assessing gaps in safety at Part 121 carriers. ATOS is not used to assess risk at Part 135 operators. The FAA plans to use the System Approach for Safety Oversight (SASO), but this methodology is in the early stages of development for on-demand operators. The FAA doesn’t expect to implement SASO until “at least” 2013. The words “at least” are a heads up that slippages in implementation can be expected.

The FAA could use the Surveillance Priority Index (SPI) as an interim. Developed in Alaska to assist inspectors in prioritizing surveillance of on-demand operators, SPAS is all but dormant. “At the first 3 FSDOs [Flight Standards District Offices] we visited, only 1 of the 23 inspectors we interviewed had any knowledge of SPI,” the DOT/IG recounted.

The DOT/IG recommended that the FAA use an interim system to assess risk and that milestones for improved oversight of Part 135 carriers be developed. The FAA response was formulaic: “By December 31, 2009, the FAA will review the current policy … and will make subsequent adjustments to reflect a risk-based oversight approach to surveillance of on-demand operators.” In other words, the agency will “review” the policy and only make changes if they’re deemed necessary by the FAA.

The DOT/IG is the “98 pound weakling” of prosecutors. The FAA sits as judge, jury and defense attorney.

There’s no promise to overhaul oversight that’s been porous and episodic.

It seems to me this action plan is weak. Every difference between Part 121 and Part 135 surveillance ought to be subjected to independent review (not a panel of Part 135 operators, but unattached and knowledgeable safety consultants). Only those differences absolutely justified for Part 135 carriers ought to be continued. The more Part 135 operators are treated like Part 121 carriers, the safer the operation.