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Collision turns attention to for-hire flights

The collision between a sightseeing helicopter and a small plane over the Hudson River comes after a federal watchdog warned that safety oversight of sightseeing and other for-hire flights is too lax.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The collision that sent a sightseeing helicopter full of tourists and a small plane into the Hudson River on Saturday comes less than a month after a federal watchdog warned that safety oversight of sightseeing and other for-hire flights is too lax.

A small plane collided with a New York City sightseeing helicopter carrying Italian tourists on Saturday around noon. The accident scattered debris in the water and forced people on the New Jersey waterfront to head for cover. Authorities believe all nine people aboard the two aircraft were killed.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general sharply criticized the Federal Aviation Administration in the report for providing significantly weaker safety oversight of the "on-demand" flight industry — companies hired to fly aircraft, both helicopters and planes, that seat less than 30 people — than it does of the commercial airline industry.

'Disparate level of oversight'
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman said in an interview with The Associated Press before the Hudson River accident that the report makes it clear "that there is disparate level of oversight."

Criticism of the FAA's oversight of the on-demand flight industry isn't new. Since 2002, the NTSB has made 16 recommendations related to safety of the on-demand flight industry. FAA has not implemented any of them.

An FAA advisory committee spent two years examining on-demand flight industry safety, issuing 124 recommendations in September 2005. Nearly four years later, none of those recommendations — many of which paralleled the NTSB recommendations — have been implemented.

The report noted that FAA is developing a new approach to safety oversight for for-hire operators that would target the most risky operations. However, it said the new system isn't scheduled for full deployment for at least four years.

FAA officials have said they agree with recommendations in the inspector general's report and are implementing them.

There are over 2,300 on-demand operators in the U.S., flying more than 9,000 aircraft. In 2007 and 2008, a period in which there were no deaths due to commercial airline accidents, there were 33 fatal on-demand aircraft accidents in which 109 people were killed.

Many of the regulations governing the industry haven't been updated since 1978. Since that time technology has changed. The use of jets by for-hire companies is now common, for example. Operators also fly more complex types of flights and more international flights.

Inspected less frequently
On-demand flight operations are inspected far less frequently than commercial airliners even though they often operate under riskier conditions. For instance, they typically fly into small airports without control towers or take off and land in remote locations, from Rocky Mountain ski slopes to the red rock canyons of the desert Southwest.

The inspector general's report cited as an example an on-demand operator that flies dozens of flight a day taking tourists to glaciers where the planes land and take off on skis. The operator has 17 planes and was inspected eight times by FAA in 2008. By contrast, a commercial airline with 10 planes overseen by the same FAA office received 199 inspections the same year.

For-hire industry pilots are required to have a minimum of 500 hours of flight experience and a commercial license, while a commercial airline captain is required to have 1,500 hours of flight experience and needs to obtain the more difficult air transport license.

The pilots are also not required to employ an FAA-licensed dispatcher, and their aircraft don't have to be equipped with warnings systems that alert pilots when they are in danger of colliding with another aircraft or flying into the ground. Nor do they have to have cockpit voice or data recorders or in-flight radar systems. There are also less stringent maintenance requirements.