WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently reexamined its “”Most Wanted List”" of safety improvements and retained two items of importance to general aviation: runway incursions and icing.
The board’s public hearing revealed there is an average of three operational errors a day at the nation’s towered airports and one severe incident every nine days. Controllers say 22% of the errors are reported by crew members or witnesses. Staff members cited three recent incidents at which airliners narrowly missed colliding when flights were operating on intersecting runways. Another, just four days before the public hearing, had not yet been investigated.
Runway incursions have been on the NTSB’s list since 1990. The FAA instituted the AMASS program (Airport Movement Area Safety System), but this provides information only to controllers and not pilots. Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker said he is pleased with the progress made by the FAA but is “”more interested”" in newer technology that provides lights to alert pilots. Light warning systems are being tested now and results should be available in six to nine months. If the system is determined to be useful, it will require several years before it is in most airports.
Icing continues to be a cause of serious accidents and the board declares more research is needed, particularly into freezing rain and large droplets. Citing one accident, staffers reported a Challenger CL 600 pilot did not deice his aircraft before attempting a takeoff because “”the engines should be able to compensate for the extra weight.”"
Even a small amount of ice can cause airplane problems, staffers declared. One ice pellet — the size of a grain of salt — per one square centimeter can prevent an airplane from taking off.
FAA has been working on icing problems for nine years. Some solutions are now being looked at but, if adopted, would apply only to newly-certificated aircraft. Only a small number of aircraft are on the drawing board to which the technology would apply. However, it is possible older aircraft could be retrofitted.
NTSB staff members said the FAA was working with the industry to find solutions to icing problems, but noted it is difficult to move quickly when there are many differences of opinion. Staffer Debbie Hersman commented that the FAA’s job is to make the rules, not to try to come up with something everybody will like.
Financing the FAA continues to be a major issue. The Inspector General of the Transportation Department now estimates that the cost of FAA’s largest modernization programs have increased by $1.7 billion since they were first figured two years ago. This brings the cost to more than $5 billion above original estimates. This increase comes at a time when Congress must decide the future of FAA funding. FAA is leaning heavily toward user fees. The Air Transport Association, representing the major airlines, is pushing for them as well.
ATA President James May calls user fees the most equitable way for all users of the system to pay. He claimed the airlines use only 25% of the system but “”shoulder an unfair burden.”" He also called for greater separation of planes to get slower aircraft out of the way of airliners.
How long general aviation interests will put up with this type of misinformation without challenging it is a puzzle. Airlines pay 4.5 cents per gallon fuel tax, less than the tax paid by general aviation. Passengers and shippers using the airlines pay. The airlines, however, collect the taxes and may retain the money for up to three months before turning it over to the government. In this way, they have the use of millions of dollars at no cost, which could come close to covering the little fuel tax paid.
In reality, an airline pays less to use the system than a corporate jet or a single engine pilot.
Isn’t it time for general aviation to demand that airlines pay their fair share for using the system — or shut up?
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.