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Regulator seeks changes in New York air traffic

U.S. safety regulators on Thursday recommended tighter guidelines for handling air traffic over New York's Hudson River in response to a collision between a helicopter and a plane that killed nine people.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. safety regulators on Thursday recommended tighter guidelines for handling air traffic over New York's Hudson River in response to a collision between a helicopter and a plane that killed nine people.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that it simplify radio communication procedures between low-flying small aircraft and airport control towers.

The safety board, which is the lead agency investigating the August 8 collision, also wants to ensure pilots are provided with necessary traffic advisories and safety alerts during flight.

Under current guidelines, pilots are mainly responsible for safety when flying over the river. Navigating the river can require multiple radio frequencies, a problem noted by the safety board.

An FAA advisory panel is due to submit preliminary upgrades to Hudson River safety rules on Friday to agency administrator Randy Babbitt. It is unclear if the FAA will adopt the safety board suggestions.

The investigation so far centers on the actions of FAA controllers, especially the controller at New Jersey's Teterboro airport who handled the takeoff of the Piper PA-32 aircraft.

The controller, who has not been identified, has been suspended from his job for making a personal phone call while handling the flight.

Investigators have suggested he may have been distracted and did not warn the Piper of building traffic over the Hudson even though he was not expected to do so unless he had time. He also had handed off responsibility for the flight to another control center before the crash, as required.

But the NTSB said the controller's workload was light and so "it appears nothing should have prevented him" from providing an update on river traffic even though the tourist helicopter was not visible on his radar when he handed off the Piper to a different radio frequency.

In addition, the mix of radio frequencies required to conduct the Piper flight as well as other responsibilities may have distracted the pilot, the safety board said.

"It is likely that the pilot did not hear any transmissions from the accident helicopter," the board said in its letter to the FAA.

Roughly 200 aircraft a day fly over the Hudson at low altitude. The area's safety record has been good with no previous collisions but 11 reports of near misses since 1990, safety officials said.