FAA releases Alaska aviation safety recommendations, focusing on weather monitoring

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 4:30 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Federal Aviation Administration released a report on Thursday aimed at improving aviation safety in Alaska.

Steve Dickson, FAA administrator, said the report came through long and meaningful engagement with stakeholders in the Alaska aviation community.

“It’s a true partnership in every sense of the word,” he said.

The report lists five key recommendations to reduce airplane accidents in Alaska. A theme throughout is the need for better weather monitoring systems across the state, which are described as sparse and unreliable.

“Despite our progress, there’s roughly 100 communities, numerous tour routes, mountain pass routes that lack basic aviation weather reporting, adequate communications infrastucture and other aspects that are necessary for safe operations in Alaska,” said Matt Atkinson, president of Alaska Air Carriers Association.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said it would be critical for the FAA to request additional funding from President Joe Biden through Congress to improve Alaska’s aviation weather monitoring systems. It would also be critical to repair monitoring systems promptly that frequently break down in rural Alaska.

The FAA maintains 230 weather cameras across the state, which has become a critical tool for flight planning. An experimental weather monitoring system being used at four Alaska airports has said to have been successful and there were calls to roll that out more widely.

“Without current weather data, pilots cannot make an informed and safe decision whether to ‘go, or no-go,’” the report found.

Other recommendations from the report include improving mapping of mountain passes and developing better navigation strategies. The National Transportation Safety Board had released it’s “most wanted list” to improve aviation safety that included requiring “black boxes” in planes, but the FAA didn’t include that in its report.

Martin Howard, general counsel for the FAA’s Alaska Region, said that would require statutory changes that are handled through a separate process.

The NTSB called for the FAA to make improvements to aviation safety in Alaska after a 2019 roundtable was held at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The NTSB is in charge of investigating plane crashes and making safety recommendations, the FAA regulates aviation in the U.S.

“Today’s action by the FAA is a step forward in addressing Alaska’s unique place in aviation safety,’’ said NTSB Chair Jennifer L. Homendy through a prepared statement. “But more needs to be done to ensure air transportation is as safe in Alaska as in the rest of the nation. We look forward to reviewing the recommendations.”

Over 80% of Alaska communities are not on the road system, making flying critical to bring in supplies and people out in emergencies. But Alaska’s aviation accident rate is the highest in the nation.

The NTSB tracks plane crashes in Alaska and found between 2008 and 2017 that the state’s accident rate was 2.35 times higher than the national average. It was also 1.34 times higher than the national average for fatal accidents.

A flight tracking system known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast used across the Lower 48 is not required over most of Alaska and is not used by many pilots, some saying that it is too costly to install. The FAA recommended outreach to encourage private pilots and air carriers to buy the systems.

“ADS-B and radio equipment are optional at most airports,” one anonymous stakeholder said in the report. “There are planes that fly without any form of communication, not even a radio. ADS-B needs to be fully implemented in Alaska and a requirement no matter the age of the aircraft. At a minimum, radios should be required.”

A program that ran in the early 2000s outfitted planes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Southeast Alaska with the tracking system. Some data suggests that helped reduce accidents in the YK Delta by as much as 40%, but the program was discontinued before it was completed.

Some stakeholders want it back, saying if that was coupled with better weather monitoring, that accident rates would decrease. Another stakeholder was scathing of the FAA, saying the same problems apparent today were outlined in a 1996 NTSB report.

“That study had the same chronic issues we are talking about today,” the stakeholder said. “There needs to be a systematic way to address the issues.”

Dickson said a draft roadmap to improve aviation safety in Alaska would be ready by February 2022. The goal would be to start implementing those plans by summer of that year.

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