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Plans to Enhance New York Airspace Safety Breathlessly Announced

Sun, Sep 20, 2009 — David Evans

Regulatory Oversight

With considerable fanfare – and positive press coverage – the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced earlier this month new rules for flying in New York City airspace. One of the most significant changes, if adopted, would divide the airspace into mandatory left and right altitude corridors that would separate aircraft flying over the Hudson River from those operating to and from local heliports.

Recall that a general aviation (GA) private airplane collided with a sightseeing helicopter 8 August, resulting in nine deaths. (See Air Safety Journal, ‘Calm Urged Until Hudson Mid-Air Is Thoroughly Investigated’)

The wreckage of the Eurocopter AS350, hit by a Piper PA-32R-300, being removed by a crane in Hoboken, NJ.

In a statement, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said the recommendations from a task force would create “crystal-clear rules for all of the pilots” operating in the crowded airspace.

The new rules would require pilots to use specific radio frequencies for the Hudson River and the East River, would set speeds at 140 knots or less, and would require pilots to turn on anti-collision devices, position or navigation equipment and landing lights. Pilots also would be required to announce when they enter the area and to report their aircraft description, location, direction and altitude. In addition, pilots would be required to have charts available and to be familiar with the airspace rules.

Political leaders in New York have blasted the FAA, charging that its oversight of the air corridor has been inadequate, and they have demanded quick action from regulators.

Accordingly, the FAA convened on 14 August the New York Airspace Task Force, which reportedly issued a report to the FAA on 28 August. The membership of the Task Force is not known, nor the rationale for its specific recommendations, because the FAA refuses to release the report. An FAA official said:

“FAA is not making the full report available. The information in the [FAA] press release [provides] the only details FAA is releasing at this time.”

It is not known if the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is investigating the 8 August mid-air collision, was represented on the Task Force. Basically, the independence of the Task Force cannot be determined.

What is known is that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) participated in the Task Force. Eddie Kragh, a Newark air traffic controller and the NATCA representative on the Task Force, basically said the Task Force did good work:

“The altitude piece of these recommendations simply means that in the exclusion zone, transient aircraft must stay above 1,000 feet, leaving the lower stratum to the local aircraft (99.9% helicopters) that must climb and descent to the heliports or seaplane bases.

“I am satisfied that the FAA invited NATCA to participate, and considered our input at every level, inviting us to go beyond just the scope of reviewing the accident and letting us expand that scope into a comprehensive review of the local airspace and procedures. The task force was a model of how well the agency can move forward when it values the expert opinion of its employees. Next, we will be volunteering our services to work to implement the new procedures.”

The FAA says it expects to complete and publish any changes to have them in effect by 19 November, so that they can be incorporated into new aeronautical charts.

But not all the Task Force recommendations will be in effect by 19 November. The recommendations must go through a rulemaking process that could take a year, two years or more to implement fully. And whether the Task Force’s proposed recommendations will satisfy the NTSB remains uncertain. The NTSB issued some safety recommendations 27 August that were not considered by the Task Force (although the FAA asserts its proposed actions “meet or exceed the NTSB’s recommendations”). Those recommendations were as follows:

— Revise standard operating procedures for all air traffic control facilities in the New York area. (A-09-82)

— Brief all controllers and supervisors on performance deficiencies evident in the 8 August accident. (A-09-83)

— Establish a special flight rules area in the Hudson and East River exclusion area. (A-09-84)

— Require vertical separation between helicopters and airplanes by requiring that helicopters operate at a lower altitude than airplanes. (A-09-85)

— Develop training for pilots operating within these areas. (A-09-86)

Without NTSB participation in the Task Force, the adequacy of its procedural changes in light of these recommendations remains to be seen.

Basically, we should be wary of self-serving FAA declarations of improved safety, when its actions in the past have been derelict, apathetic and downright obstructionist. Note that the FAA couches its safety plans with the words “if adopted.” Better to await the NTSB’s final report on the accident, and its independent assessment of the adequacy and urgency of the FAA’s actions following the mid-air collision.

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