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NTSB Urges FAA to Improve Oversight of Part 91

Following the deaths of 45 people and the injury of 10 others, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration develop new safety standards for operators of revenue Part 91 flight operations.  The NTSB also said the FAA should tighten up surveillance and oversight of companies offering air tours, air combat, skydiving and tourist flights.

In its report to the FAA, the NTSB makes six recommendations for improving revenue Part 91 operational safety, including closing regulatory loopholes and exemptions; giving inspectors better guidance for surveillance; developing a database of such operations; and requiring companies to develop Safety Management Systems similar to those used by the airlines, but scaled to smaller operations.

Investigations into high-profile incidents, such as a commercial balloon accident that killed 16 in Lockhart, Texas; the Collings Foundation  B-17 crash in Connecticut that killed seven people; and a skydiving crash in Hawaii in which 11 people died revealed a pattern of minimal FAA surveillance; insufficient pilot training, and/or maintenance oversights.

Also mentioned in the report were two accidents that the NTSB deemed as operators using regulatory loopholes to avoid more stringent compliance.  One involved an air combat operation in California that billed itself as a Part 61 flight school, and the other being the FlyNyon helicopter crash in New York in 2018 that was flown under air photography exemptions.  Five passengers drowned when the Eurocopter AS350 landed in the East River after a power failure.  The aircraft was operated with its doors off for photography.  Passengers were secured with tethers that kept them from exiting the aircraft when it inverted in the water.  

Reiterating prior recommendations, the NTSB urged the FAA to develop a consistent policy to bring air tour operators under one consistent national standard, similar to Part 135, and to eliminate the exception in Part 135.1, which limits compliance for flights operating to and from the same airport within 25 miles.  NTSB also called for Safety Management Systems.  These systems are required of Part 121 airline operations, but are voluntary for other operators.  Unfortunately, of approximately 2,000 Part 135 companies that could qualify for SMS, only 17 have adopted it and another 158 have program development in progress.

Board vice-chairman Bruce Landsberg noted that the Collings Foundation had an SMS program for its B-17 operation, which had been stipulated by the FAA to approve flights under the Living History Flight Exemptions program.   This program allows vintage warbirds to carry revenue-paying passengers without complying with Part 135 requirements.  The NTSB investigation revealed, however, that the FAA never inspected Collings to determine compliance.

Although the NTSB is not recommending significant new regulation of revenue Part 91 flights, its investigations revealed that existing regulations are simply not being observed and accidents were a consequence of this.