Report Calls for More Safety Oversight of Smaller ‘On Demand’ Airlines

July 20, 2009

There is less safety oversight of “on-demand” flight operators than commercial airlines even though those smaller operations are often riskier, a federal watchdog says.

A report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general said the Federal Aviation Administration conducts far fewer safety inspections of on-demand operators than commercial airlines and doesn’t effectively target the inspections it does make to the highest-risk operations.

On-demand operators include aerial sightseeing tours, and medical, cargo and unscheduled passenger flights of fewer than 30 people. The type of aircraft they use range from small, two-seat, single-engine planes to helicopters to turboprops and jets with 10 or more seats.

The agency also hasn’t implemented 16 National Transportation Safety Board recommendations aimed at improving the safety of on-demand flight operations or addressed recommendations made by its own advisory committee in 2005, some of which paralleled the NTSB recommendations, the report said.

Many of the regulations that apply to on-demand operators haven’t been updated since 1978.

In 2007 and 2008, there were no commercial airline fatalities in the United States, but there were 109 people killed in accidents involving on-demand flights, the report said. Fifty people were killed earlier this year when a regional airliner operated by Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Va., crashed near Buffalo, N.Y.

On-demand operators often face more safety risk because their flights tend to be shorter with more frequent takeoffs and landings, which are the most dangerous part of flight. These operations also typically involve small airports without air traffic control towers and emergency equipment.

On-demand operations are also allowed under FAA regulations to hire less experienced pilots than commercial airlines and their planes don’t have to have the same safety equipment.

“Given these risk factors and the diversity of on-demand operators, targeted, risk-based oversight from FAA is a critical issue,” the report said.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency agrees with the recommendations in the report.

“We will adjust our oversight of on-demand operators to reflect the risk-based approach the inspector general is recommending and we will develop an initial set of risk indicators,” Brown said.

The report noted that FAA is developing a new approach to safety oversight for on-demand 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.

The agency decided not to pursue two prioritization systems for safety inspectors that have already been tried successfully in some parts of the country, the report said.

The report cited a company that flies dozens of flights daily in the summer to take tourists to glaciers on which the aircraft land and take off on skis. The company has 17 planes and was inspected by FAA eight times last year. In contrast, a commercial airline with only 10 planes overseen by the same FAA office received 199 inspections in 2008 because it falls under more stringent regulations.

Neither company was named in the report.

On-demand operators can hire pilots with a minimum of 500 hours of flight experience and a commercial license, the report said. Commercial airline pilots are required to have a minimum of 1,500 hours and the more difficult to acquire air transport license.

James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association, said it is natural that there be different regulations for on-demand operators since the type of flights they offer and the aircraft they use are so different from large airlines. He noted the industry had made its own safety recommendations to FAA’s advisory committee, which have “been gathering dust.”

“It is our hope this new report will spur the FAA to act,” Coyne said.

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