NTSB warned of air tour dangers

August 11, 2009 3:55:31 PM PDT
The air tour business in New York is a $290-million dollar a year industry. Saturday's collision has refocused attention on whether tourist dollars are taking precedence over safety.

The National Transportation Safety Board says it's been trying for years to get the FAA to do more to make air tours safer.

Deadly helicopter tour crashes through the years have kept investigators busy and frustrated by the FAA's failure to act on some of their key safety recommendations. After a crash in Hawaii back in 1994, the National Transportation Safety Board released a Special Report calling on the FAA to "implement national standards (for tour operators) by the end of 1995." At the time, James Hall was head of the NTSB.

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    "It's been 14 years since that recommendation was made and no reason from the FAA for why a simple recommendation like that hasn't been addressed in nearly a decade," Hall said.

    Again and again, the NTSB has called for "improvements in FAA oversight " to ''enhance the safety of air tour operations." Changes have been made, but one recommendation that goes ignored one tour crash after another is the call "to develop and enforce safety standards for all commercial air tour operations."....including "recurrent pilot training" that addresses "geographical hazards" and "special airspace restrictions."

    "I remember when the NTSB made that recommendation," Peter Goelz said.

    Goelz was the NTSB's deputy manager then. He says the point of the recommendation was and still is to ensure that air tour pilots are specifically trained and tested to fly in uniquely challenging airspace.

    "So that they know the quirks and the challenge because many of the environments that are spectacular to look at also hold real dangers," Goelz said.

    While human error is highly suspected to be at fault for Saturday's deadly collision, it's uncertain who is to blame and even more unclear as to whether greater regulation or oversight could have prevented it. Undeniable, though, is that any tinkering with the Hudson River airspace will have ripple effects.

    "There are five major airports feeding traffic into that airspace and if you act precipitously by changing one thing it will have unintended consequences throughout the system," Goelz explained.

    The FAA says it has implemented some of the NTSB's recommendations and since doing so the number of accidents in the air tour industry has gone down from about 13 a year to just 8 in 2007.


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