Improving Charter Safety

Kent S. Jackson | May 22, 2019

NTSB Calls Out Part 135 on Most Wanted List

The NTSB just announced the 2019-2020 Most Wanted List. Number Six on the top ten list is “Improve the Safety of Part 135 Aircraft Flight Operations.” As a former charter pilot, I ground my teeth when I read that the FAA doesn’t require on-demand flights “to meet the same safety requirements as commercial airlines.” I have seen that headline many times over the years, and I have a timeworn “apples and oranges” response as to why you can’t compare the two industries.

However, when I sat down with NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt to discuss the recommendations, he challenged me: “Why NOT compare 121 and 135?” He made some good points, and I was surprised to find myself agreeing with the NTSB’s goals.

Why I Changed My Mind

According to the NTSB, most of the companies that conduct Part 135 operations are generally not required to have the same level of safety programs of a 121 operation. For example, Part 135 operators generally don’t have a safety management system (SMS), flight data monitoring (FDM), or a controlled flight into terrain (CFIT)-avoidance training program. The NTSB doesn’t know how many Part 135 operators have SMS or FDM programs, because the FAA doesn’t require operators to implement and report on them. However, just because they are not required doesn’t mean that the top Part 135 operators haven’t implemented these systems. Third party auditors, such as Wyvern and Argus, look for SMS and CFIT training programs in their audits. Private pressure has encouraged Part 135 operators embrace these probrams even though the FAA does not require them.

CFIT-avoidance training programs are required for Part 135 helicopter operations, but not for Part 135 fixed-wing operations. The NTSB has investigated several fatal CFIT accidents involving flights operated under visual flight rules at low altitudes. In these accidents terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) alerts were inhibited due to the lack of effective TAWS protections and nuisance-alert mitigations.

A case in point is the NTSB’s investigation of the October 2, 2016, crash of a turbine-powered Cessna 208B Grand Caravan airplane. The plane crashed into steep, mountainous terrain northwest of Togiak, Alaska. The investigation identified safety issues related to a lack of SMS, FDM, and adequate CFIT training and technology use. Following this accident, which killed two pilots and the passenger, the NTSB commented on the need for improvements in the operator’s CFIT-avoidance training. In addition, they identified the need for SMS and FDM programs (and supporting devices) for Part 135 operators, among other issues.

Where We Stand Now

The NTSB is making recommendations to the industry and to the FAA. To the industry, the NTSB is recommending installing Flight Data Recorders as part of Flight Data Monitoring programs. That is the expensive recommendation. The easier recommendations are to adopt SMS and CFIT-avoidance training programs.

SMS has been adopted by most major Part 135 operations because they need it when they fly to Europe. Though not required, Class C TAWS has been installed in numerous Part 135 aircraft of all sizes. A TAWS works by using digital elevation data and airplane instrumental values to predict if a likely future position of the aircraft intersects with the ground. Having the equipment is a good step, but are Part 135 operators providing the essential CFIT-avoidance training to match their equipment? Apparently, this has not been surveyed by the FAA. 

The NTSB has recommended that the FAA require all Part 135 operators to install flight data recording devices capable of supporting an FDM program. From an operator perspective, installing an expensive FDR when it is not required is a hard sell. A hefty price tag that won’t add to the resale value of the aircraft. But what about all the money spent on FDRs that are required to be installed? Some of the largest 135 operations are now looking at implementing flight data monitoring to take advantage of the technology that is already in their aircraft.

A Path Forward

The NTSB is also recommending that the FAA require SMS programs in Part 135. This is a much easier proposition for operators. In fact, one of the consequences of the FAA’s recent implementation of the Safety Assurance System (SAS) is that Part 135 operators are incorporating non-required processes and procedures. Why? Because SAS was originally designed for Part 121 operators, and the Data Collection Tools (DCTs) used by SAS have not been adequately re-designed for Part 135. As a result, Part 135 operators often implement distinct elements of SMS in order to avoid saying “no” on a DCT. At the same time, many charter operators report that they find it difficult to incorporate SMS elements into their training, manuals and procedures because some FAA inspectors reject inclusion of SMS programs that are not FAA required, approved or accepted.

The NTSB’s recommendations for SMS, CFIT-avoidance training and FDM are all within reach for the charter industry today. Given the cost and sophistication of today’s jet charter market, Chairman Sumwalt’s question is timely and fair: “Why NOT compare 121 and 135?”

This article appeared in the May, 2019 issue of Business & Commercial Aviation as a Point of Law article.