FAA accused of stalling on air safety

By Joan Lowy
Associated Press / February 20, 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, be 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," said Mark Rosenker, NTSB chairman, 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.

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.

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.

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