Address by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
Alaska Air Carriers Association
Anchorage, Alaska, March 4, 1996

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for inviting me to speak to you about a subject I'm very interested in, the safety of aviation operations in Alaska.

When I was given a copy of your program yesterday, I was pleased to see featured prominently on the back cover the motto, "Committed to Aviation Safety." I congratulate you on 30 years of promoting safety for this vital Alaska industry.

Before I start, I'd like to pass along my congratulations to Kim Daniels-Ross on her recent marriage and on receiving the FAA's "High Flyer" award for her work in helping present the 1995 Alaska Aviation Safety symposium. Also, I understand Mary Hewitt, your Member Services Coordinator, also received the "High Flyer" award for her work in producing the symposium.

Many of you are Presidents and CEOs of your companies. I, too, am a CEO. In my case, I run the operations of one of the federal government's smallest agencies, but I believe one of the most important, the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB's 350 employees investigate about 2,500 accidents a year in aviation, highway, railroad, marine, hazardous materials and pipelines.

Four of those employees are posted right here in Anchorage. Jim LaBelle, who I'm sure you all know, and his staff in our field office investigate the 150 or more aviation accidents that occur up here every year. You'll be hearing from Tim Borson of that office later this afternoon. Also here from our Anchorage office are George Kobelnyk and Scott Erickson. Joining me from Washington is Ben Berman, who along with Tim Borson, managed the Board's Alaska safety study.

In addition, Keith McGuire, our regional director from Seattle, is here to take part in today's activities.

You can imagine that from time to time we run across some surprises in our activities up here in Alaska. Jim was telling me about an investigation he conducted a few years back following a light plane accident. The passenger told Jim that just after they levelled off after takeoff, the propeller came off the plane without warning. The passenger asked the pilot where he intended to land the plane. There was no answer; the passenger said the pilot was just peering intently out the left side window. The passenger said that he couldn't control himself after a few seconds and again asked the pilot where he was going to land. The pilot finally shouted, "Land, heck, that's a brand new $2,000 propeller. Watch where IT lands!"

To do our job, the taxpayers have funded the Safety Board to the tune of $38 million this year. Although we monitor the effectiveness of the safety programs of the Department of Transportation's modal agencies and of billion dollar transportation corporations, to give you an idea of our relative sizes, our annual budget would fund the DOT for just nine hours!

But $38 million is a lot of money from the American people, no matter how you look at it. As taxpayers, each of you is paying us almost 15 cents a year to ensure safer transportation, and it's our job to deliver.

Let me give you an idea of what we've been busy with in aviation lately. As you might know, our investigators have been assisting three foreign governments on major airline accidents in the last 2 months, and we have many domestic investigations proceeding:

Despite this litany of recent accidents, we must all agree that our commercial aviation system has a marvelous safety record, and that includes service in Alaska. On average, an airliner with more than 100 passengers aboard departs every 6 seconds, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; 366 days this year.

But a good safety record is a fragile commodity. There was a 27-month period in this country when the major scheduled airlines safely carried almost a billion passengers between fatal accidents. Then, in the 6-month period beginning July 2, 1994, 4 accidents involving major and commuter airlines resulted in 262 fatalities, and as far as the American public was concerned, that marvelous 27-month period was forgotten.

Similarly, just so you aviators don't feel like you're being singled out, the railroad industry is now undergoing intense public scrutiny. Nineteen ninety four (1994) was the safest year in railroad history, and last year was a good one, as well. But since January 1 of this year, the Safety Board has launched investigations into 16 railroad accidents that resulted in 19 fatalities, 230 injuries and more than $60 million in property damage.

Again, in the minds of the American public, last year was a long time ago, and they wonder about the safety of the commuter and passenger railroads. Last week I testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on railroad safety, and will do so before a House of Representatives hearing when I get back from Alaska on Tuesday.

Those of us in positions of responsibility are called upon to account for the performance of our duty to ensure transportation safety, whether we're in the government on the private sector. For our part, it is the Safety Board's responsibility to look at each of these occurrences separately, to ferret out the causes and to issue recommendations aimed at preventing such accidents again.

In a similar vein, we look at segments of the transportation industry from time to time even if there hasn't been a high profile accident that has captured the public's attention. In previous years, we've studied school bus safety, passenger cruise ships, air tours, the air traffic control system and emergency medical helicopter operations. That is why we came up here last year. We had issued a study on aviation safety in Alaska in 1980. Although we believed that many of the problems we found in that study had been addressed, because of the importance of aviation to Alaska we felt that after 15 years we should assess the situation again.

Last November, we released our findings. Information analyzed for the study came from accident investigations previously conducted by the Safety Board, a survey of 50 pilots and commercial operators in Alaska, and interviews with Alaskans involved with airports, air traffic control, and weather services. The Board also conducted two public forums, which I chaired in Juneau and in Anchorage, to gather information to support the study. I met many of you there, and told you I would be back after we issued our report to explain our findings and answer your questions. And here we are.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge the assistance we received in our study from the State of Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, the FAA's Alaska Region, NASA Ames Research Center, the Alaska Region of the National Weather Service, the U.S. Postal Service, and the commercial aviation operators of Alaska, including your association. Their candor and cooperation show that all of us share one goal: safe air transportation for Alaska.

The Safety Board has never had any doubt that flight operations in Alaska are diverse. They are responsive to the State's challenging aviation environment and its unique air transportation requirements. These requirements include 550,000 people stretched over 500,000 square miles with six climatic areas of distinct flying weather. I'd like to be able to tell you how many airports there are around here, but that is a hard figure for the experts to agree on. We were given figures during our study ranging from more than 200 to over 600.

At our request, the State government presented the following inventory of airports in Alaska:

Most Americans would be surprised to learn just how much this State is reliant on air transportation. That is, they would be until they saw that list I just gave you. They don't realize that land transportation just isn't an option for hundreds of communities in Alaska.

Some characteristics of Alaska aviation, such as rough terrain, adverse weather, and extreme isolation, increase the risks to safe flight operations. Some of these risks can be managed, to varying degrees, by the operating practices of pilots and companies, and by the infrastructure of airports, navigational aids, air traffic control facilities and weather reporting facilities.

Aviation safety in Alaska has improved since our 1980 study. However, while the fatal accident rates of Alaskan air taxis have fluctuated, in most years they were greater than those of air taxis in the remainder of the nation. And even though fatal accident rates of Alaskan commuter airlines have decreased, they remain greater than those of commuter airlines in the remainder of the U.S. In fact, in 1994, the fatal accident rate for commuter airlines in Alaska was three times greater than for commuters in the remainder of the United States.

But in a way, when we compare Alaska commuters to those elsewhere in the country, we're comparing apples and oranges. The fact is that commuter air operations in Alaska are dominated by airplanes powered by a single reciprocating engine, operated under VFR by a lone pilot. Commuters outside of Alaska tend to be multiengine, turbine-powered airplanes, operated under instrument flight rules by two pilots. Were there ways, we wanted to know, to help the Alaska commuter industry compensate for differences in the operating environment and equipment?

What we found in our recent study is that, while there have been substantial improvements since our earlier study, issues we identified in 1980 came up again last year. These issues included risk-taking by pilots and commercial operators, deficient weather observing and reporting, insufficient navigation aids, and inadequate airport condition reporting. The recommendations out of our recent study were directed at those problems.

Let me highlight some of our findings.

The leading safety problem for commuter airlines in Alaska appears to be visual flight rule (VFR) operations into instrument conditions (IMC). Six of the nine fatal accidents between 1989 and 1993, the latest data available, were related to this type of accident.

Our study looked at some of the factors that may underlie the phenomenon of VFR flight into IMC in Alaska. Half of the 44 survey respondents for whom information was available stated that they had flown in IMC on a VFR flight in response to operational pressures. The pressure was most frequently reported as self-induced, but the most frequently reported external source of operational pressure was the U.S. Postal Service.

We recommended that the Postal Service establish a broader and more flexible performance standard for bypass mail transportation that relieves the direct performance pressure on individual flights. Currently, so-called bypass mail must arrive at a hub from Anchorage or Fairbanks within 36 hours, and then be delivered to the bush point within the next 24 hours. Under current procedures, as long as one company declares an airport open, the clock starts for all the other carriers. Clearly, this places operational pressures on pilots and company management.

The kernel of our safety recommendation is for the Postal Service to find ways to avoid placing pressure on individual flights while maintaining the standards for the overall timeliness of mail delivery. Merely extending the deadline for each individual flight might not necessarily relieve the pressures that could cause pilots to take risks.

VFR into IMC usually involves poor pilot decisionmaking, whether in initiating the flight or continuing it into adverse weather. We recommended that the FAA require by the end of 1997 aeronautical decisionmaking training that is specially tailored to Alaska's aviation environment, for pilots involved in commercial aviation, given at the initial and recurrent training levels.

One of the causes of poor pilot decisionmaking can be fatigue, and that brings me to the part of our study that has probably caused the most buzz among the commercial aviation community here in Alaska. Current flight and duty time regulations are different for Alaska aviation from that required for the rest of the nation's pilots. Alaska's commuter pilots basically operate under rules for air taxi pilots elsewhere in the United States. We think that all pilots providing the same type of service should be covered by the same regulations. After all, the laws of physiology are not different here. The human body needs as much rest up here in Alaska as it does in New York or California or Tennessee. In fact, in a 1994 survey conducted by NASA, 85 percent of the pilots cited the length of their duty day as causing their fatigue.

We have made recommendations that move in two directions specifically motivated by the Alaska experience. First, developing appropriate limitations in the length of the duty day and in consecutive duty days without a day off. Second, we think the FAA should treat pilots in Alaska the same as pilots in the rest of the country.

Taken together, these recommendations would probably mean the elimination of special crew scheduling rules for Alaska commuter airlines and changes in the rules for air taxis throughout the country.

The FAA has proposed rulemaking that affects all aspects of crew scheduling limitations. We are in the process of evaluating those proposals. We know that they are potentially expensive for you; as with all regulations, a balance must be found between what furthers the cause of safety and what is economically feasible.

By the way, hours-of-service regulations are a concern of ours in all modes of transportation. We are having public debates on this issue with operators and regulators in the railroad and highway industries, as well, and last year we held a major two-day forum on the issue of fatigue in transportation that was attended by almost 600 professionals from 16 countries.

The most promising strategy to reduce the number of accidents related to VFR flight into IMC is to reduce the reliance of the commuter airlines and air taxis on VFR flight, by moving some of these operations into an enhanced instrument flight rules, or IFR, system.

The current IFR system has several deficiencies, including inadequate navigational aid coverage, insufficient approach procedures and inadequate voice communications and aircraft position surveillance capabilities. These prevent the IFR system from fulfilling the needs of Alaska's commuter airlines and air taxis. Also, some current regulations do not facilitate Alaskan commercial operations under IFR, and some of these are worth evaluating for possible change.

There are several emerging technologies for navigation, communications and aircraft position surveillance that can make the IFR system work for many of Alaska's commercial operations. These need to be implemented in a coordinated way, together with appropriate adjustments to regulations that govern commuter and air taxi operations.

It's no wonder that Alaska does not have the same magnitude of low altitude instrument flight rules system that exists in the lower 48. Villages are spread out over the vast terrain at low density. Air traffic in and out of most airports is of very low volume. And, there are harsh conditions for installing and supporting ground-based electronic equipment for navigation and communication.

Yet Alaska can have an IFR system that begins to meet the needs of the users, and have it in relatively short order. The State needs satellite-based navigation from the global positioning system, or GPS, satellite voice communications, and data link services to inform air traffic controllers about the positions and altitudes of airplanes under their guidance. These technologies are well suited to Alaska because they avoid the need for an expensive ground infrastructure that exists in the lower 48.

But they must be installed in a coordinated and integrated way. Unlike in the lower 48, GPS will not do much good in Alaska without corresponding improvements in voice communications and air traffic surveillance.

We've recommended that the best way to start moving into this future Alaska aviation system is with a demonstration program of an enhanced low altitude IFR system. This can accelerate the introduction of the new technologies to Alaska.

We made recommendations on other issues relating to Alaska aviation, including weather observations and special air services like aerolodging and log hauling helicopters, and I urge you to get a copy of our report if you haven't already done so. The Safety Board's office here in Anchorage will be happy to provide you with a copy.

A few weeks ago, we received the FAA's first detailed responses to our recommendations. Yesterday, I met with Andy Billeck, the FAA's new regional administrator in Alaska, and Bob Lewis, his deputy, to discuss the current status of our recommendations. FAA Administrator Hinson has been to Alaska three times and is coming up here again in July. Although we are still evaluating the FAA's responses in detail, it appears to me that the FAA has basically agreed with the intent of many of our recommendations and has agreed to act by the dates requested. This is a priority at the Safety Board and we will keep on top of the situation until the recommendations are implemented.

This has been a long speech, but I had a lot to say to you. Thank you again for your hospitality while I've been up here, and for your earlier cooperation in our study. You have a lot to be proud of, providing safe air transportation in the face of severe topographical and weather conditions for much of the year, when those you serve have nowhere else to turn.

Our study found that air service in Alaska is safe. With adoption of our recommendations to the FAA, the State of Alaska and others, we can see your safety record complete its historical movement toward parity with the rest of the country, and maybe even move ahead of the rest of the country.

Thank you, and my colleagues and I will be happy to answer any questions you might have.

 

Jim Hall's Speeches