WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration has significantly improved its safety oversight of for-hire aircraft companies but hasn't followed through on recommendations regarding air tours and illegal operators, a government watchdog said Wednesday.
The FAA is doing a better job of targeting inspections to more risky for-hire operations, Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel said in a progress report. The agency has also given inspectors better procedures for evaluating safety concerns.
For-hire companies include a wide variety of aircraft and operations, including emergency medical helicopters, aerial sightseeing tours and air taxis. They often fly in more risky circumstances than scheduled airlines, but operate under less stringent safety regulations. Medical helicopters, for example, pick up patients at accident scenes and land at hospital helipads without the guidance of air traffic controllers. Some air tour helicopters land on glaciers or fly close to volcanoes.
The FAA also proposed new safety rules in October for medical helicopter operations, Scovel noted. Those rules, which are not yet final, would require operators to evaluate the risk of a flight before sending out a helicopter. Operators with 10 or more helicopters would have to establish a control center to communicate with pilots, advise them on weather conditions and monitor the progress of each flight. Operators would also have to equip their fleets with cockpit warning systems that alert pilots flying at night or in poor weather when a helicopter is in danger of colliding with a mountainside, the ground, a building or some other object.
The National Transportation Safety Board has long expressed concern about the high number of accidents involving medical flights.
FAA has also issued new pilot and flight attendant training rules for for-hire operators.
There were 47 for-hire accidents and 17 people killed in 2009, the latest year for which data were available from the National Transportation Safety Board. The number of fatalities involving for-hire operations has gone up and down over the last two decades. For example, there were 69 fatalities in 2008, but only 16 two years earlier.
Scovel also criticized FAA for not implementing NTSB recommendations for better identifying illegal for-hire operators.
"Finding and taking action against illegal operators is a significant challenge for FAA," the report said. The agency generally finds out about an illegal operator when it investigates a fatal accident or through hotline complaints.
For example, FAA discovered an unlicensed air charter operator at Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City, Okla., in 2008 only after a chartered plane crashed, killing all five people on board. The cause of the accident — a collision with birds — was not related to the illegal charter. An NTSB investigation found that because the charter operator wasn't licensed by FAA to carry passengers for hire, it wasn't following safety rules that apply to for-hire operations. The board also found that the local FAA office was too short-staffed and didn't have enough money to catch illegal for-hire operators.
FAA also hasn't followed through on NTSB recommendations that air tours be required to follow the same safety rules as other for-hire operations, including implementing pilot training programs, more stringent maintenance policies, rest requirements for flight crews, and an annual FAA surveillance program, the report said.
The report was contained in a letter to Rep. Jerry Costello of Illinois, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee. FAA officials didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
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