The FAA and Alaska’s air tour community must act to make our skies safer

Six more lives were lost near Ketchikan on Aug. 5 in Alaska’s most recent air tour accident. It’s the latest in a number of tragic crashes, including the May 2019 midair collision of two air tour airplanes near Misty Fjords National Monument in which six people died and nine were injured, as well as the June 2015 air tour airplane crash near Ketchikan that killed nine people.

Although it will be many months before the cause of the most recent crash is determined, any fatal air tour accident in Alaska is one too many, and it’s well past time for National Transportation Safety Board recommendations to be fully implemented.

Alaska’s mountainous terrain, dynamic weather conditions and limited aviation infrastructure pose unique challenges to aviators, particularly pilots whose livelihoods depend on getting planes in the air in all types of conditions. We recognize that while there’s no single, simple solution that will address all the challenging safety issues, there are ways to make air tour flying safer for all.

In 2019, the NTSB held a roundtable discussion in Anchorage with the Alaska aviation community to address actions that could improve the safety of for-hire aviation operations in the state. Training, risk management, technology, and infrastructure were among the issues discussed with many operators and advocates in the aviation community. Unfortunately, while several new ideas came from the discussion, it did not create a sense of urgency among some participants to implement the life-saving improvements we have advocated. It’s past time for action.

Safety management systems (SMS) in revenue passenger-carrying aviation operations are on the NTSB’s 2021 – 2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements for good reason: They help to prevent accidents by first identifying then mitigating risks, including those unique to a small operation. Safety management systems build and maintain a culture of safety that prioritizes safe flight operations. However, for small operators and the Federal Aviation Administration, this is going to require some creative thinking – one size does not fit all. Nor does the FAA’s normal approach for processing SMS applications. It may not be easy, but it is essential.

The airlines are required to have safety management systems, but no such mandate exists for air tour operators. That disparity needs to be remedied, and NTSB believes that the SMS voluntary program that FAA currently has needs to become mandatory.

Some air tour companies have adopted SMS voluntarily, and we applaud them for providing the level of safety their passengers have a right to expect — but it’s time for the FAA and all Alaska air tour operators to work together and fully implement effective safety management systems.

Data and information sharing is also a particularly effective tool for safety in the air carrier community. While the air tour industry involves much smaller scale operations, there is still ample opportunity to share collective knowledge and data for safety improvement. For example, basic information, ADS-B flight tracks or other data sources, in aggregate over time, can reveal operational hazards and confirm if interventions have been effective — all before an accident occurs.

If the FAA and the air tour community will take these steps, the skies of Alaska will be safer.

Bruce Landsberg serves as Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

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