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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.