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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

FAA to Clear Up ‘Vague’ Public Aircraft Regulations

By Andrew Parker, Senior Editor

During an HAI Forum in late January, FAA Director of Flight Standards Services John Allen told around 100 people in attendance that the agency intends to clear up regulations governing public-use helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that are so confusing, even his own inspectors do not fully understand them.

Held at its headquarters in Alexandria, Va., HAI called the forum to address questions raised as a result of NTSB’s investigation into the 2008 crash of a Carson Helicopters-operated Sikorsky S-61 near Weaverville, Calif. The helicopter was under a U.S. Forest Service contract. NTSB put much of the blame on Carson, while noting the role of lax oversight from FAA and the Forest Service. The Dec. 7 release of the NTSB probable cause prompted an explosive response from Carson President Franklin Carson in January, and has thrust the public use issue back into the limelight.

“This subject really crosses all boundaries within the industry,” noted HAI President Matt Zuccaro, adding that “all parties agree there needs to be a simple and precise set of guidelines on the rules governing [public aircraft] operations.”

According to Allen, FAA has been “working on this issue a long, long time. … We find that [it] is complicated not only because of a vague and ambiguous statute—but it also has its tentacles in other areas of the regulation, tentacles into areas of good governance, between different areas of the government and who has responsibility, and it has tentacles in the area of certification. It has its tentacles in all these things and that’s what’s made it more complex.” FAA has gained experience from going “through many situations—and not just Carson Helicopters—but some other situations where we had to draw the line and say, this is the policy,” Allen said. For a long time, he continued, the policy sought to “minimize the FAA risk, to put the motivation on other government agencies, realizing that it is the responsibility of the operator to ensure safety. Operators are the ones who operate, who train, who maintain, but then the sponsoring government entity—and if it’s a civil operation, it’s the FAA’s responsibility to assure safety, to provide a relative level of confidence because we’re providing reasonable oversight. If it’s sponsored by another government agency, they have the responsibility.”

When the conditions exist for regulatory “confusion and ambiguity,” Allen observed that it “seems to facilitate entrepreneurship. There are those out there that are taking advantage and enjoying that there is vagueness in this, and find business opportunities.” Once FAA puts in place clarifications to the rules governing public-use aircraft, “there will be those out there who are going to have to scramble to put themselves into a legal perspective. Because up to this point, even we were confused—my FAA inspectors did not understand the rule,” Allen added.

“I’m going to quickly clarify that,” he continued, “but as we understand and interpret this rule, I can tell you that it really puts the burden more on the FAA, which I resisted for a long time but finally came to grips with, so that the FAA has the primary burden in a lot of these instances and we will work with other government agencies who have a need for a particular service and can operate within the existing regulations.” FAA will also work with “operators who are under contract and want to provide a service, so that they know who they are responsible answering to in terms of safety, whether it’s to the FAA or to a contracting government agency.”

NTSB Board Member Earl Weener explained that the safety board also had trouble deciphering the public use regulations. “The more we looked into this, the more confused we got. The more ambiguous we found things to be,” he said. As part of the recommendations stemming from the Carson investigation, NTSB issued A-10-150, asking FAA to: “Take appropriate actions to clarify FAA authority over public aircraft, as well as identify and document where such oversight responsibilities reside in the absence of FAA authority.”

According to Weener, NTSB’s objective is “to point out that this needs some work. That somebody has to be responsible for not only deciding what is public operation, but when public operation is conducted, how is the safety assured of those government employees who are traveling aboard these airplanes?” He continued: “There have been numerous attempts to address it in the past—hopefully this time an integrated, comprehensive policy can be developed and made to work.” (From March 2011 Rotorcraft Report)

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