GAO calls for GA to report flight hours, as well as data on recurrent training

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is calling for the FAA to start collecting flight hours for all general aviation aircraft, collect data on recurrent training, and set “specific safety improvement goals for individual industry segments using a data driven, risk management approach.”

While the U.S. aviation system is one of the safest in the world, hundreds of fatalities occur each year in general aviation, GAO officials noted in a new report, pointing to NTSB data that shows that 92% of 2011 accidents occurred in GA. This was one reason GAO officials were asked to examine the characteristics and trends in GA, as well as recent actions taken by the FAA to improve safety.

After analyzing NTSB data, reviewing government and industry studies, and interviewing FAA and NTSB officials and those in the industry, the GAO found that while the number of GA accidents decreased from 1999 through 2011, more than 200 fatal accidents occurred in each of those years. Most of the accidents involved single-engine piston airplanes and were attributed to pilot error, specifically loss of aircraft control.

Some segments of the industry experienced accidents disproportionately to their total estimated annual flight hours, GAO officials note, pointing to experimental airplanes, which were involved in 21% of fatal accidents, but accounted for just 4% of total flight hours.

“We can draw some conclusions about general aviation accident characteristics, but limitations in flight activity and other data preclude a confident assessment of general aviation safety,” GAO officials said in the report.

To improve that data, GAO officials suggest the FAA collect the number of flight hours for each GA aircraft over a certain period of time. To minimize the impact on the GA community, the FAA could collect this data during registration renewals or at annual maintenance inspections, the GAO report recommends.

GAO officials also recommend that the FAA “collect and maintain data on each certificated pilot’s recurrent training, and update the data at regular intervals.”

Another recommendation is that the FAA set specific safety improvement goals — such as targets for fatal accident reductions — for individual segments of GA using a data driven, risk management approach. In making this last recommendation, the GAO notes that the FAA has “embarked on several initiatives to meet its goal of reducing the fatal general aviation accident rate by 2018,” including the renewal of the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) with a data-driven approach, and the implementation of the Flight Standards Service’s five-year strategy. The GAJSC, a government-industry partnership, focuses on analyzing GA accident data to develop intervention strategies. The strategy involves a number of initiatives in four areas, including risk management, outreach, training, and safety promotion. A Safety Team, composed of FAA staff and industry volunteers, will be responsible for carrying out “significant portions” of the strategy, according to the GAO report.

But the report notes that the strategy has shortcomings that “jeopardize its potential for success,” specifically pointing to the lack of performance measures. “Without a strong performance management structure, FAA will not be able to determine the success or failure of the significant activities that underlie the five-year strategy,” the report concluded.

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