Most Wanted List Progress Report: Aviation Safety

By Member Earl F. Weener

The NTSB is releasing a series of blogs highlighting the progress the transportation community is making in each mode to advance issues on our 2017-2018 Most Wanted List. This series sheds light on the progress made and what needs to be done going forward to improve transportation safety. This is the third blog of the series.  

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Member Earl Weener and John DeLisi, Director, NTSB Office of Aviation Safety, talk with attendees during the aviation session of the Most Wanted List midpoint meeting

Aviation is one of the safest forms of transportation—largely due to government-industry collaboration efforts such as the Commercial Aviation Safety Team and the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee. We have seen no passenger fatality in the domestic operation of a U.S. airline (Part 121) since 2009, and the accident rate is trending slightly downward in General Aviation-GA (Part 91 and Part 125). While we celebrate the safety gains made across the commercial aviation industry, there is still work to be done across all sectors, especially in GA.

On November 15, the NTSB brought together government, industry, and advocacy representatives from the transportation safety community to get a progress report on our Most Wanted List (MWL) of transportation safety improvements. Aviation Safety Director John DeLisi and I led the aviation portion of the discussion.

 

 

We learned that industry is taking the lead to improve safety, and, while some Federal Aviation Administration initiatives have been helpful, more may be needed. Yet the best path to getting NTSB recommendations adopted, most agreed, was encouraging a more aggressive voluntary, collaborative approach to safety.

Our focus on preventing Loss of Control (LOC) In Flight in General Aviation (GA)—the only aviation-specific issue on the MWL—was the primary focus of our conversations. Successfully resolving this problem requires continuing collaboration, which, so far, appears to be occurring widely and effectively. The GAJSC is one organization helping to facilitate this collaborative approach. At the mid-point meeting, we also announced that the NTSB will be collaborating with the FAA, industry associations, flight schools, technology manufacturers, and others in an upcoming April 24, 2018, roundtable on LOC solutions. The number of LOC and fatal LOC accidents are both trending down as of 2016, our last complete year of data. We won’t call that progress yet, but we might look back one day and say that it was.

The changes to Part 23 of the Federal Aviation Regulations reforming small aircraft certification standards have enabled streamlined adoption and installation of new technologies, such as AOA indicators that would prevent LOC, without a lengthy and costly supplemental FAA flight certification. Private industry can now do what it does best: innovate.

We also discussed another MWL issue, Expand Recorder Use to Enhance Safety. In particular, the NTSB would like to see more cockpit cameras, which aid in accident investigations and provide useful data for developing policies/procedures to prevent accidents. However, privacy issues, data protection challenges, and fears of punitive actions by companies appear to still hinder progress in this area.

Just as we have seen tremendous benefits in crash survivability on our highways with the use of seat belts and air bags, the aviation community so too must also recognize the significant safety benefits of enhanced occupant protection systems, such as five-point shoulder harnesses. While helicopter pilots appear to be buckling up, others in GA are not—including passengers. Child restraint systems (“car seats”) should also be used in planes; yet, they widely are not. The NTSB reported at this meeting that we are collecting more data on if/how seat belts are used in our accident investigations.

Progress is being made on the carriage of lithium-ion (LI) batteries. Heat from one battery can propagate to nearby batteries before a fire breaks out, introducing a challenge for fire detection and suppression. However, we expect the FAA to complete testing related to this risk within this MWL cycle. We also await the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration actions to harmonize its regulations with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s technical instructions regarding segregating lithium batteries carried as air cargo from other flammable cargo.

Just before the beginning of this MWL cycle, in 2016, the new flight and duty regulation went into effect, a huge win for managing fatigue in commercial aviation. We continue to fight for the small wins. We still need to apply the same level of safety to cargo flights, but we have seen progress toward applying it to maintenance personnel.

And, in 2017, the FAA communicated that they’ll research the prevalence of impairing drug use – OTC, illicit, and prescription – throughout aviation. Previously, we had studied their presence in pilots in fatal accidents, which revealed an alarming rate of OTC use in fatal accidents. It may be too early to discuss any changes to medical fitness in aviation due to BasicMed. However, one of the related concerns is the loss of flight time data that we previously gathered as part of the medical certification process.

After our progress report meeting, I felt optimistic that the improvements being made, especially by industry, will serve to make aviation even safer. I encourage all stakeholders and the general flying public to consider areas where we still need to make progress. Everyone has a role to play in improving aviation safety—whether you are a pilot, an operator, or sitting in the seats.

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