U.S. aviation regulators are planning a significant overhaul of safety measures in Alaska to address the state's persistently high accident rate.
A mix of new technologies including bringing automated weather tracking equipment to outlying airports and more traditional moves, such as improving aviation maps, are being embraced starting next year, the Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday in a press release.
The agency actions were prompted by a yearlong review of safety in the state where flights face unique challenges of extreme weather, high mountains and vast areas with little of the aviation safety infrastructure common in the rest of the Uniterd States. More than 80% of Alaska's communities are accessible only by air.
"Alaska depends on aviation more than any other state, and we are committed to doing everything possible to make flying safer," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in the release.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents but has no regulatory power, last year found that the overall accident rate in Alaska was 2.35 times higher than the rest of the nation in the decade from 2008 through 2017. Crashes on smaller commercial airlines were 1.34 times higher in the state, the NTSB found.
The most recent U.S. airline passenger fatality occurred in Alaska on Oct. 17, 2019, when a commuter plane skidded off a runway on a remote Aleutian Island airport and a propeller slammed into the fuselage, according to NTSB records.
The state also hasbeen the site of some of the worst fatal crashes in recent years involving the air-tour industry. A midair collision between two sightseeing planes killed six people on May 13, 2019, near Ketchikan.
The NTSB said in its conclusions that FAA efforts to improve safety in Alaska had stalled and called on the agency to make changes.
This past October, Dickson started the FAA Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative at a safety summit to discuss recommendations that the NTSB had made about Alaska charter and commuter operations, according to FAA information. A group of FAA experts was formed to focus on safety issues specific to Alaska.
The Federal Aviation Administration Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative and the NTSB found that the most common factors in plane crashes in the state involved getting caught in deteriorating weather and accidentally flying into the ground. Often, crashes involved a mix of the two.
The FAA held 12 virtual meetings this past spring and summer with aviation stakeholders such as pilots, trade associations, airports and state officials.
Based on that process, the report released Thursday recommends increasing and improving weather data reporting and forecasting, and expanding satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) air-traffic control coverage to more areas, according to the FAA announcement. It also supports the current outreach to encourage operators to equip aircraft with ADS-B.
Among the other recommendations are to:
• Develop a comprehensive Alaska airspace navigation strategy, with lower-altitude flight routes and improved GPS backup systems.
• Continue the working group initiative in partnership with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association that’s verifying and adding mountain pass information on aeronautical charts.
• Continue existing safety outreach programs and seek new opportunities where FAA divisions could work together to address safety issues from a variety of perspectives.
The FAA plans to develop a draft roadmap by mid-February, identify resources to implement it, and then request aviation stakeholder feedback on the document through May, according to the agency announcement. The agency expects to incorporate aspects of the new initiatives by next summer, and to submit a progress report to stakeholders by Sept. 30.
The FAA's effort drew praise from Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans.
Murkowski, who participated in a virtual press conference about the FAA report on Thursday morning, said in a prepared video that the “genesis” of the FAA effort came out of the NTSB’s Part 135 round-table discussion that was held in September 2019 at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“As NTSB pointed out at the round table, many of these accidents could have been prevented,” Murkowski said. “I applauded the NTSB for hosting such an important forum and facilitating a discussion for an industry that is truly a vital lifeline in our vast state.”
She said she appreciated FAA Administrator Dickson for acting on the NTSB recommendations and starting the safety initiative process.
“My thanks to Administrator Dickson, the Alaska FAA, and the many, many stakeholders for your hard work on the Alaska aviation safety initiative report,” Murkowski said. “I hope this is a milestone for our aviation community and that we can turn the corner on Alaska's aviation safety record.”
Sullivan said in a video presentation during the press conference that he has been "pressing the FAA on this important initiative for a long time.”
He said his goal is that “this engagement leads to tangible benefits to preserve and expand the aviation safety assets and aviation safety infrastructure that are of paramount importance to all Alaskans and all of our communities. Our communities, our pilots, our air carriers, passengers and the general aviation community all deserve a safe, reliable, and well-funded aviation system — like the rest of the Lower 48 — and not to be an afterthought during implementation of one-size-fits all regulations, or disadvantaged for infrastructure funding due to the size and geographic challenges that of course exist in the great state of Alaska.”
Other participants in the media event included Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska; Alaska Air Carriers Association President Matt Atkinson, FAA Alaska Region General Counsel Howard Martin, Alaska International Airport System Planning Manager Jodi Gould, Ryan Air President Lee Ryan, CONOCOPhillips Alaska Director of Flight Operations Dennis Parrish, and several others.