FAA, NTSB feud over icing safety for turboprops

Workers remove debris at the scene of a plane crash site of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 16, 2009. Workers remove debris at the scene of a plane crash site of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 16, 2009. (AP Photo/David Duprey, pool)
By Joan Lowy
Associated Press Writer / February 19, 2009
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WASHINGTON—On Halloween 1994, an American Eagle flight en route to Chicago in freezing rain went into a high-speed dive and crashed near Roselawn, Ind., killing all 68 people aboard.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash in part on ice accumulated on the plane's wings and recommended in 1996 that testing requirements for flight certification of all turboprop planes be adjusted to include the specific kind of icing conditions in the Roselawn crash.

Further, the board said, once the testing requirements were in place, turboprop planes already in use should be retested and, if they failed the new requirements, redesigned. The planes are commonly used by commuter airlines.

More than 12 years later, the recommendations linger on the NTSB's "most wanted" list, testament to the board's inability to force action on safety improvements even when they are judged critical to saving lives.

The power to implement aviation safety recommendations lies with the Federal Aviation Administration, which is facing new scrutiny in light of last week's crash of a turboprop plane near Buffalo, N.Y., in icy conditions. Forty-nine people aboard and one on the ground were killed.

Present and past NTSB members have complained that the FAA has been slow to implement important safety recommendations involving flying turboprops in icy conditions that were made after the Roselawn accident and later accidents in Monroe, Mich., in 1997 and Pueblo, Colo., in 2005.

"I'm somewhat frustrated, along with my other colleagues on the board, that the process is taking so long," NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said in an interview.

"What I would like to see is a reasonable pace in the regulatory process that gets you to a solution in a reasonable amount of time," Rosenker said. "Clearly when we talk about a decade or more, that is not a reasonable amount of time -- that is an unreasonable amount of time."

The NTSB currently has about 400 "open" aviation-related recommendations, he said.

In 1998, the NTSB recommended that the FAA require that pilots not use the autopilot after they turn on their deicing equipment. The board says the autopilot can mask changes in the handling quality of the airplane that may be a precursor to a stall or loss of control due to ice accumulation.

The FAA agreed in part but declined to implement the recommendation, saying there are some circumstances -- particularly when there are a lot of demands on a flight crew's attention -- in which using the autopilot in icy conditions is warranted. However, the board still felt strongly about the issue, circling back to it in 2006 with a similar recommendation, with an exception for busy work periods in the cockpit. To date, the FAA has not replied to the recommendation, except for a letter acknowledging its receipt.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency has issued guidance to airlines and pilots advising against use of the autopilot in icy conditions but doesn't believe an order against its use is appropriate.

"It's not an area where there is a single solution for every situation," Brown said.

Far from ignoring safety recommendations, the FAA has been working hard on the issue of ice and turboprop planes, issuing more than 100 safety directives since 1994 requiring specific actions or procedures related to icing for existing aircraft, Brown said.

FAA officials long have complained that the safety board is free to make whatever safety recommendations it feels are best, whether those recommendations are practicable, economical or even technologically possible. The FAA, on the other hand, must make sure any rules it promulgates are feasible and reasonable.

A 2007 recommendation on NTSB's most-wanted list urges turboprop pilots to turn on their deicing equipment when the plane enters icing conditions rather than waiting for ice to begin to accumulate. The board was concerned enough to issue a safety alert in December warning that "thin amounts of ice, as little as 1/4 inch, can be deadly." The alert also urges pilots to turn off or limit the use of the autopilot "in order to better 'feel' changes in the handling qualities of the airplane."

Among the unanswered questions from last week's crash is whether the pilot of Continental Connection Flight 3407 should have been flying the plane manually. NTSB investigators said the autopilot was on until it was automatically knocked off just before the plane's final 26-second plunge to the ground.

Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said the regulatory process was "certainly broken for the people who lost their lives in Buffalo."

"Unfortunately, all you can think here is economic interests are trumping safety interests," he said.

Brown noted that the FAA proposed a rule two years ago that would require airplane manufacturers to provide a means to detect ice and ensure deicing equipment is turned on right away. She said the rule is in its final stage of review.

"One criticism of the FAA is that they move at a glacial pace at everything they do, from modernizing air traffic control to giving due consideration to the NTSB's recommendations," said David Primo, a political science professor at the University of Rochester in New York who co-authored "The Plane Truth: Airline Crashes, the Media and Transportation Policy." "We would be much better served as a country in terms of regulations if the FAA would simply make decisions."


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