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FAA pressed to act on safety proposals

/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawmakers tired of waiting after 13 years pressed Federal Aviation Administration officials on Wednesday to implement safety recommendations related to aircraft icing.

It's "unacceptable" that FAA hasn't proposed regulations requiring aircraft manufacturers to show their planes can fly safely in all kinds of icy weather, said Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee, at a hearing.

The recommended changes matter most for turboprop planes used by regional airlines and for small, private planes because they spend more time flying at lower altitudes and are more likely to encounter poor weather. Between 1998 and 2007, there were 229 deaths in accidents involving small commercial airliners and private planes, according to the Government Accountability Office. There were six icing-related accidents involving large airliners during the same period and no deaths.

The main concern is weather in which rain freezes into ice the moment it hits aircraft surfaces. The ice changes the shape of a plane's wings and could cause the aircraft to stall and plummet.

Since the 1994 crash of an American Eagle turboprop airliner in Roselawn, Ind., which took 68 lives, the National Transportation Safety Board has been urging FAA to ensure that all planes it certifies as flight-worthy can fly safely in such conditions. The NTSB, which put the recommendation on its "most wanted" list of safety improvements, also wants FAA to require planes already in service be adapted to meet new safety criteria for those particular icing conditions.

FAA has been working on the issue for more than a decade, but substantial research was required to develop a solution, John Hickey, an FAA safety official, told the subcommittee. He said he expects FAA to propose new regulations by mid-June.

Even after regulations are proposed, it could be years before they are implemented.

Costello reminded Hickey that four months ago he told the subcommittee the new regulations would be ready by January 2010.

The conditions NTSB's recommendations are designed to address are "a very rare event," Hickey said. "Our information is it happens less than 1 percent of the time."

A moment later, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman responded: "If you are on the aircraft that is that one out of 100 that's getting into (those particular freezing) conditions, you want to make sure the aircraft is certified for those conditions and the pilots know what to do."

Hickey said that even though FAA is still working on new regulations for the specific freezing conditions of concern, the agency has issued more than 100 directives to address icing safety issues on more than 50 aircraft types since 1994. None of them addresses the NTSB's recommendations on instant icing.