NTSB Chairman’s On Demand Part 135 comments ignore an obvious solution

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NTSB: Recent crashes involving tour aircraft underscore need for FAA to tighten safety regulations

More Rules do not guarantee increased safety

Great variations in conditions among P135 Operators

SMS focuses on the greatest risks of each unique carrier

Chairman Sumwalt , in the midst of another 14 CFR Part 135 accident investigation, reiterates one of the Board’s priorities on its Most Wanted List. Even based after several accidents under the Part 135 on-demand rules, his recommendations were very general in nature:

“I’m not saying that we have to have the exact same regulations, but we do want an equivalent level of safety so that once somebody pays money to fly on an airplane, that they have confidence that there’s a high level of safety.”

Though he urges an equivalent level of safety, he ignores the fact that an operator in the air desert, a company flying in the tropics of Hawai’i and a pontoon operator in Alaska face very different safety challenges. Perhaps his suggestion lacks specificity BECAUSE there is no single solution for these three cases plus P135 Charters in the East River, in the Everglades or elsewhere.

The obvious response to this problem is the Safety Management Systems discipline. The risks faced by these carriers vary and may even be unique. The specific problems are identified in the data accumulated from the individual risk array. The solutions are not universal; rather the SMS rubric causes all of the stakeholders in each certificate to reach a consensus as how best to address the weaknesses of its unique challenges. A procedure which minimizes the entry of sand into a turbine has little relevance to the tropical or artic flight environment.

Small companies have claimed that SMS imposes too much process which detracts from actual flight; yet a successful SMS campaign attacks the laxity which can be found in a Mom and Pop organization.

The absence of an SMS recommendation from the NTSB is perplexing in that the Board points to its advocacy of this regime to be one of its accomplishment.

From a regulatory approval aspect, SMS has passed the exacting OMB cost benefit review previously.

“When tourists climb onto a sightseeing plane to fly over Alaskan glaciers, or hop on a helicopter to tour the Grand Canyon, they have no reason to wonder whether the aircraft is held to different safety standards than the commercial plane they took to reach their vacation destination.

The National Transportation Safety Board says that perhaps they should.

Such tourist jaunts, some small airline commuter flights, virtually all helicopter travel and “on-demand” flights, such as those taken by the rich and famous who have a plane at their beck and call, are governed by different — and what some say are less stringent — Federal Aviation Administration regulations than commercial aircraft.

“Basically, if you’re paying money for an airplane seat, there should be an equivalent level of safety,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

The NTSB cited the recent collision between two float planes ferrying cruise ship passengers off Alaska, another Alaskan float plane crash a week later, and the April 29 crash of a tour helicopter in Hawaii. In all, 11 people were killed and 10 were injured in the incidents.

NTSB investigators have not determined the probable causes of the crashes, but late last month, the agency pointed to its long-standing recommendation that such aircraft be held to standards closer to those required for commercial aviation.

“I’m not saying that we have to have the exact same regulations, but we do want an equivalent level of safety so that once somebody pays money to fly on an airplane, that they have confidence that there’s a high level of safety,” Sumwalt said. “And we’ve found from accident investigations that there’s really three things that are lacking for Part 135,” he said, referring to the category of classification for such aircraft.

The NTSB — which makes recommendations but has no role in setting federal policy — wants the FAA to mandate that Part 135 carriers develop safety management systems to govern their assessment of risks and safety procedures. They also want the aircraft to carry flight data recorders similar to those used by major airlines and for pilots to undergo additional training so they know what to do if they fly into trouble.

There are three gradations of people who can call themselves aviation pilots. Some fly general aviation aircraft — either small planes or, in some instances, helicopters. Pilots who fly Part 135 flights, generally speaking, work for commercial companies that are either very small (think two or three planes), ferry tourists or do “on-demand” flights. Finally come pilots on regularly scheduled flights, whom the FAA requires to have logged a minimum of 1,500 hours in flight.

Sumwalt said there are some “very, very good” Part 135 “operators that are doing the things that we’ve called for and basically following airline standards.”

But there are other businesses that he says are “running on a shoestring” and feel the need to cut corners. When that happens, he said, the public is in the dark.

“There’s an airplane that’s all pretty and painted up, and it looks impressive, but when you peel back the layers there, you find out that there were a lot of things that that organization didn’t do,” Sumwalt said, pointing to a 2015 incident in Akron, Ohio, in which the cockpit crew and seven passengers were killed when their Part 135 plane crashed into an apartment building.

The NTSB concluded the flight crew mismanaged its approach to the Akron landing. It also said the company had a “casual attitude toward compliance with standards” and cited “its inadequate hiring, training, and operational oversight of the flight crew” and “the company’s lack of a formal safety program.”

The Air Charter Safety Foundation, a nonprofit aviation safety organization that promotes and supports charter operations, draws a parallel to the commercial airline market as it strives to achieve the NTSB’s goals. The group’s president, Bryan Burns, said that until the airlines began code-sharing more than 20 years ago, many established their own safety standards. With code-sharing, they adopted more uniform standards.

“We measure everything we do based on looking at what the [commercial] airline safety record has been and applying it to the charter world,” Burns said. “The [charter] industry needs to take it upon themselves to self-regulate.”

Burns urged people to do their research when looking to hire a plane or book a sightseeing tour.

“It’s all about due diligence before you purchase your flight,” he said. “Ask some questions.”

Among them, he said: Does the outfit have an FAA air-carrier certificate? What is its previous crash and incident history? Does it have a safety management system in place? What standards of maintenance does it adhere to?

“You think that you’re getting the luxurious, glorified flight that has the nice, fancy pictures on the website, but in reality, do you really know who your charter is?” Burns said. “There is a wide range of operators out there who are doing minimal standards versus those who are exceeding not only FAA standards but the industry standards.”

With aircraft such as medical transports — either planes or, more commonly, helicopters — the regulations become even more nuanced.

The first thing we’ve had to determine is whether it had a patient on board,” said FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford, “then it was probably Part 135. But if it was just flying home with only the air ambulance staff, it’s typically operated under” the general aviation rules.

The FAA was created by Congress in 1958 after a collision between two planes above the Grand Canyon that killed 128 people. While the FAA has authority over everything nonmilitary that flies — regulating general aviation, Part 135, and commercial airlines — Congress and the White House continue to have oversight — meaning every proposed rule needs approval from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Lunsford said that more than 20 years ago, there was a greater distinction between pilots who flew Part 135 flights and those who did regularly scheduled airline flights. That gap has closed, he said, and “now the NTSB is picking around the fringes” to encourage other improvements.

In a 2017 exchange of letters between Sumwalt and then-FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta, Huerta said specific concerns raised by the NTSB “could be applied to Part 135 certificate holders at some point in the future.”

Sumwalt responded that “a key focus of your review will be achieving a favorable cost-benefit ratio for any new or revised federal regulation.”

Lunsford said recently that risk-benefit calculation enters into rulemaking efforts. But it’s made not by the FAA but by the Office of Management and Budget.

“They ultimately get to decide whether a regulation is going to make it or if it’s going to die,” Lunsford said. “And I’m being blunt here, but many times in the history of aviation, when that calculation was run through the process, the answer came out that, essentially, not enough people have died yet.”



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2 Comments on "NTSB Chairman’s On Demand Part 135 comments ignore an obvious solution"

  1. Joe –

    I read with interest Sandy Murdock’s June 6 blog where he took a fairly sophomoric viewpoint regarding NTSB’s position on part 135 safety. He started by saying that my recommendations, as reported in the Washington Post, “were very general [sic “in”] nature.” Mr. Murdock cited a quote that I gave to Post, on which he apparently interpreted as the total sum of NTSB’s efforts to improve Part 135 safety. For the record, NTSB has 23 open safety recommendations related to Part 135 safety, which taken in totality and if implemented, will improve Part 135 safety.

    He later states: “The absence of an SMS recommendation from the NTSB is perplexing …” If Mr. Murdock would have done a little more research than simply referring to a Washington Post article – even looked at our Most Wanted List briefing sheet (linked below) – he would have seen that NTSB has an open recommendation which calls for FAA to “Require all 14 CFR Part 135 operators to establish safety management programs.” That recommendation, incidentally, came from the same accident investigation which Mr. Murdock referenced in his October 20, 2016, blog, titled, “NTSB crash lesson: Part 135 Safety Management Systems (SMS).” In that blog, Mr. Murdoch cited a finding we issued in the accident report: “Safety management program programs can benefit all 14 CFR Part 135 operators because they require the operators to incorporate formal system safety methods into their internal oversight programs.” Perhaps Mr. Murdock missed that it was in that same accident report that we issuing [sic] the above-cited recommendation, calling for SMS for Part 135 operators.
    It is perplexing that for someone working in your organization, and especially for someone who has a law degree, would not have done a better job at researching this blog. Since the blog grossly misrepresented facts, I request that, in the interest in transparency, you kindly publish my reply.


    Robert L. Sumwalt

  2. Thank you, Mr. Chairman for commenting on Sandy Murdock’s post of June 6,2019 entitled NTSB Chairman’s On Demand Part 135 comments ignore an obvious solution. We welcome your response as we do from all readers.
    As the title suggests, the article focused on your comments in the Washington Post, however the article did note the Board’s support of SMS:
    “The absence of an SMS recommendation from the NTSB is perplexing in that the Board points to its advocacy of this regime to be one of its accomplishments.”
    So, your leadership on SMS was indeed recognized and as you point out has been noted in past JDA posts. As you would agree, the value of SMS is that it does not look to a one size fits all solution, but addresses the prioritized risk of each carrier.
    Glad to grant your request for “transparency”, which serves to clarify the Board’s position on SMS. However, I must take exception to your “sophomoric viewpoint” comment which the article is not. I also take exception to the statement that the article “grossly misrepresented facts” which it did not.
    I apologize for having inserted [sic] into your text, but I did not want to misrepresent exactly what you wrote.

    Joseph M. Del Balzo
    President of JDA Aviation Technology Solutions

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