Collision turns attention to for-hire flights

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">An image of the collision between a small plane and a helicopter over the Hudson River aired on Fox News on Saturday. &#40;Courtesy of Fox News&#41;</span></div>
August 8, 2009 6:02:34 PM PDT
The collision that sent a sightseeing helicopter full of tourists and a small plane into the Hudson River on Saturday comes less than a month after a federal watchdog warned that safety oversight of sightseeing and other for-hire flights is too lax. A small plane collided with a New York City sightseeing helicopter carrying Italian tourists on Saturday around noon. The accident scattered debris in the water and forced people on the New Jersey waterfront to head for cover. Authorities believe all nine people aboard the two aircraft were killed.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general sharply criticized the Federal Aviation Administration in the report for providing significantly weaker safety oversight of the "on-demand" flight industry - companies that fly aircraft, both helicopters and planes, that seat less than 30 people at the customer's request - than it does of the commercial airline industry.

Criticism of the FAA's oversight of the on-demand flight industry isn't new. Since 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board has made 16 recommendations related to safety of the on-demand flight industry. FAA has not implemented any of them.

An FAA advisory committee spent two years examining on-demand flight industry safety, issuing 124 recommendations in September 2005. Nearly four years later, none of those recommendations - many of which paralleled the NTSB recommendations - have been implemented.

The report noted that FAA is developing a new approach to safety oversight for on-demand operators that would target the most risky operations. However, it said the new system isn't scheduled for full deployment for at least four years.

"Given these risk factors and the diversity of on-demand operators, targeted, risk-based oversight from FAA is a critical issue," the report said.

FAA officials have said they agree with recommendations in the inspector general's report and are implementing them.

There are over 2,300 on-demand operators in the U.S., flying more than 9,000 aircraft. In 2007 and 2008, a period in which there were no deaths due to commercial airline accidents, there were 33 fatal on-demand aircraft accidents in which 109 people were killed.

Many of the regulations governing the industry haven't been updated since 1978. Since that time technology has changed. The use of jets by on-demand operators is now common, for example. Operators also fly more complex types of flights and more international flights.

On-demand flight operations are inspected far more infrequently the commercial airliners even though they often operate under riskier conditions , typically flying into small airports without control towers or taking off and landing in remote locations, from Rocky Mountain ski slopes to the red rock canyons of the desert Southwest.

The inspector general's report cited the example of an on-demand operator that flights dozens of flight a day taking tourists to glaciers on which the plan land and took off on skis. The operator has 17 planes and was inspected eight times by FAA in 2008. By contrast, a commercial airline with 10 planes overseen by the same FAA office received 199 inspections the same year.