Alaska’s unique reliance on Aviation and Exceptional Conditions
Creates Pressure on Safety– Medallion formed to respond to Risk
FAA reduces financial support- not clear WHY?
Alaska Aviation Foundation has issued a report that it is forced to close down its operations due to reduced/zero (?) financial support from FAA. Safety in the Last Frontier has always been a challenge. Getting there by plane is sometimes essential for welfare of the destination; aviation is the only means of transport to some points. The weather conditions are challenging both in terms of temperature/snow/winds and of sudden, unforecasted changes. The result has been a bush pilot population with a tradition of “not turning around”. The combined result of these factors has been a poor aircraft safety record.
Medallion Aviation Foundation was established to try to address these problems. There is strong data to suggest that Alaska has improved. Thus, the initial news seeming to indicate that the FAA is changing its relationship with the Foundation raises the question:
First, here is a verbatim copy of the report by station KTUU:
“The Board of Directors of the Medallion Foundation, an Alaska non-profit aviation safety organization, says that due to a decrease in funding from the Federal Aviation Administration it will be closing its doors on Sept. 15 after 17 years.
The press release announcing the closure also cites a change of “language that may place the Medallion Foundation in the position of being used as an instrument to take action against air carriers who are voluntarily participating” in its programs.
The board of directors says it met on Aug. 9 to discuss a memorandum of understanding sent to the Medallion Foundation from the FAA.
“It is with deep regret and sadness that the Board of Directors find the funding insufficient to continue operations and will not agree to these terms in the new Memorandum of Understanding,” states the press release.
The release writes that it is “unfortunate” that Alaska carriers won’t be able to access the safety programs that the foundation provides, such as training classes, simulators, TapRoot accident investigation, tourism safety videos, and maintenance, among other services.
According to its website, the Medallion Foundation was formed “from an infamous legacy of too many aircraft accidents and fatalities in Alaska.”
Original appropriations secured by Sen. Ted Stevens allowed it to buy seven flight simulators. The foundation’s website cites a CDC study that claims that accidents in commercial air carriers in Alaska declined by 57 percent between 2000 and 2009.
One FAA representative declined to comment and deferred to Washington. The proposed funding, according to the same source, is only $850,000 down from $1 million. The differential does not appear to be a budget buster for the FAA or MAF. Given the improved aviation safety record in Alaska, the FAA must have some strong reasons to reduce its support of Medallion.
The Foundation also insinuated that the new MOU with the FAA placing Medallion into “being used as an instrument to take action against air carriers who are voluntarily participating“. That may be a misinterpretation of the MOU, in that the FAA’s national policy is no longer enforcement oriented. If anything the SMS philosophy would suggest that the delegated administrator of ASAP, for example, might be more aggressive in dealing with the risks exposed by the ASAP report.
The FAA has other indicators that the relationship with Medallion was not a problem:
Comments by the Regional Flight Standards Manager in support of the Foundation (2011)
Listing of the organization’s link on the Kenai Flight Service Station
Ordinarily, if there are emerging issues, one would expect there to be visible criticisms by the FAA.
There is a recent Op Ed piece in the Anchorage Daily New written by one of the Foundation Board Members—
First, the Medallion Foundation was established by Alaska air carriers in participation with the Federal Aviation Administration. Based on accident rates at the time, both organizations discussed alternative ways to improve safety in Alaska in a collaborative way. The FAA has provided oversight of Medallion Foundation since the inception of the program.
Organizations like the Medallion Foundation encourage certificated operators to add programs that exceed basic certification requirements. Medallion looked to major carriers like Delta, American and Alaska to review voluntary programs they were using to improve safety and quality, like an internal evaluation program. …From this basic foundation, he then developed the Medallion Five Star/Shield Program.
A recent commentary published in the Anchorage Daily News indicated that 37% of aircraft involved in Alaska accidents were operated by Medallion members. But the author failed to mention that 100% of the accident aircraft operate under the authority of their FAA certifications.
The Medallion Foundation provides 20 or more flight simulators, at no charge, at various locations throughout Alaska, to permit pilots to train in instrument conditions and emergency procedures. Medallion developed the first non-punitive, statewide Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), permitting small carriers, who could never operate an independent program, the ability to participate where they share information, become aware of risk, and thereby are able to take corrective actions within their own operating areas utilizing information that would otherwise not have received. I cannot count the number of carriers or individual employees trained by Medallion in “root-cause analysis,” known as ”Taproot,” a scientific approach that allows carriers to determine a final cause of an event to develop better corrective actions and deal with problems on a realistic basis.
Primary financial funding for Medallion was received with the assistance from the late Sen. Ted Stevens, by the FAA and the state of Alaska. Since inception, roughly $21 million has been spent to support the Foundation’s safety efforts. The FAA’s budget for 2019 is $17.7 billion dollars – or just under $2 million per hour. Total Medallion costs since inception represent 10 hours of the FAA’s total annual budget, and future costs are roughly 2-3 hours of the FAA budget next year. As a taxpayer, these figures represent an outstanding return on investment….
The Anchorage Daily News has hypothesized in an article that the change may have been occasioned by the following:
In May, two floatplanes operated by Taquan Air — which was awarded a shield in 2008 — crashed near Ketchikan, killing eight people combined. Taquan Air is no longer listed as a shield carrier.
In 2015, a de Havilland Otter operated by Promech Air, another Medallion member, crashed in Misty Fjords National Monument, killing all nine people aboard. The National Transportation Safety Board later blamed the air carrier’s lax safety “culture” for the crash.
The Anchorage paper articulated concerns about the effectiveness of the Medallion program—
On June 25, 2015, a de Havilland Otter operated by Promech Air crashed in Misty Fjords National Monument. The pilot and all eight passengers were killed.
Three weeks later, on July 17, a Wings of Alaska Cessna 207 on a scheduled flight from Juneau to Hoonah crashed into mountainous terrain. The pilot was killed and four passengers seriously injured.
The Promech and Wings crashes had something notable in common: Both companies were members of the Medallion Foundation.
According to budget requests later filed with the state, Medallion received $17 million in federal funds by 2013.
More recently, the organization has also received more than $750,000 from the state.
According to publicly filed records, an average of 44 percent of Medallion’s annual income pays salaries. This does not include other administrative expenses or the minimum of $60,000 paid annually since 2013 for rental of a building owned by Executive Director Gerard Rock, where the foundation’s offices are located.
Cornerstone safety programs
Medallion has developed safety programs in five key areas: CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) avoidance, operational control, maintenance and ground service, safety, and internal evaluation.
By completing each “cornerstone,” members receive specific Medallion Stars. Those completing all five Stars are then eligible for a Shield after further evaluation.
Current Star and Shield members include Air Excursions, Alaska Central Express, Coastal Helicopters, Grant Aviation, Hageland Aviation, Pacific Airways, Ryan Air, Smokey Bay Air, Taquan Air and Wright Air Service, all of which have suffered accidents with fatalities or serious injuries in the past 10 years.
On its website, the organization points to escalating accident statistics in the 1990s as an impetus to its formation.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board database, in the 10-year period between Jan. 1, 1990, and the last day of 1999 there were 1,733 aircraft accidents in Alaska; 377 of them involved air taxis and small commuters (FAR Part 135 operators).
In the 10-year period after Medallion was founded, from Jan. 1, 2001, to the last day of 2010, there were 1,138 total aircraft accidents; 212 involving air taxis and small commuters.
However, it must be noted there was a far more dramatic impact on the Alaska aviation industry in this period than Medallion.
In 2002, Sen. Stevens spearheaded the passage of the Rural Service Improvement Act. Aimed at stabilizing the passenger, freight and mail system for rural Alaska, RSIA restructured how mail contracts were awarded and resulted in more than two dozen scheduled air carriers going out of business or being purchased by competitors.
The impact of the act on Alaska’s aviation landscape cannot be overstated, nor can technological innovations such as Capstone and expansion of the FAA’s weather-reporting system be ignored. Medallion does not exist in a vacuum and it would be inaccurate to suggest it is solely, or even primarily, responsible for an overall reduction in accidents.
‘Illusion of safety?’
A similar perceived sense of security was evident in Alaska in 2013 when Gov. Sean Parnell spoke to the Chamber of Commerce.
“Medallion certification diminishes the number of lost lives and injuries due to aviation accidents,” Parnell said. “So if you are traveling on a Medallion-certified air carrier, you are traveling with people who have been trained above and beyond the minimum.”
Ten people were killed in crashes involving Medallion members that year.
Those investigations made clear that both companies struggled with decision-making, as well as suffering operational control and apparent FAA oversight failures. Further, the circumstances surrounding the Promech crash in particular, which involved a line of air tour carriers following a pre-established route in marginal weather conditions, are familiar.
They echo previous “follow-the-leader” accidents including the 1994 crash of Wings of Alaska enroute to Juneau (seven dead, four seriously injured), the 1995 crash of Island Air Services in Kodiak (four dead), and the 2007 crash of Taquan Air in Misty Fjords (five dead).
‘Pilots just make mistakes’
The NTSB recently determined the causes for both the Promech Air and Wings of Alaska crashes were the pilot’s decisions to fly under visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions.
There were contributing factors as well, including, in the case of the Wings crash, the FAA’s failure to properly monitor the company, and the company’s failure to follow its own operational control procedures.
For Promech Air, the board also cited a corporate culture that “tacitly endorsed flying in hazardous weather and failed to manage the risks associated with the competitive pressures affecting Ketchikan-area air tour operators.”
Are the programs working?
There are many questions to be raised about the effectiveness of the Medallion Foundation’s programs on the recurrent problems plaguing Alaska aviation, and it is doubtful its standardized programs are addressing the issue of individual decision-making with actual pilots themselves.
Medallion supporters need to think about the failures among the foundation’s membership and what that says about the organization’s methods. At some point, it must be asked if the programs are working to increase flight safety, or serve more to impress unwitting passengers, federal investigators and insurers.
The brutal truth is what happened to Promech Air and Wings of Alaska in 2015 was just more of what has been happening in the state for decades. It was happening before the funding of millions of dollars and the awarding of Stars and Shields, and it shows no signs of stopping.
In May 2016, the FAA issued a letter to the more than 200 regional operators in Alaska. In the wake of five serious crashes dating back to Promech, the agency noted such accidents generally occur due to “inappropriate or nonexistent safety cultures…”
The agency encouraged companies to seek the assistance of the Medallion Foundation.
What the FAA failed to note was three of those accidents, like so many before them, involved Medallion members.
Though a cogent, well-researched article, it is hard to judge the validity of the facts alleged. Unless the FAA has vetted this paper, it would be inadequate to justify the change in the Foundation relationship without more.
The DOT Office of Inspector General recently issued a report based on a single audit of the Medallion Foundation and its conclusion was that the FAA needed to scrutinize the Alaskan organization’s reporting. Unless there is more to this critique, not a basis for a reduction of support.
Clearly, there is a need to wait to hear more from “Washington” for the existing record is cloudy at best. At the same time it is apparent that tools like
- Shield Program
- ATDs & Simulators
- Enhanced Aviation Safety Auditing
- Crew and Single Pilot Resource Management
- Fatal and Serious Injury Prevention
- CFI/DPE Initiative
- Aviation Safety Action Program
are needed in the 49th State. Whether the Medallion Aviation Foundation is the appropriate provider of these services may be an open question. This is a story of aviation safety which will be followed here!!!
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