You are here

Aviation Safety in Alaska








JULY 5, 2005

Good Morning, Chairman Stevens and Members of the Committee.  It is a great pleasure to be here today in Alaska to testify, along with Secretary Mineta and Regional Administrator Poe.  Improving aviation safety and lowering accident rates in Alaska, have been a major focus of efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over the last decade, and I’m proud to acknowledge, also by the aviation community in Alaska.  The aviation community here has demonstrated a strong commitment to safety.  After all, the aviation system is what connects Alaska’s cities, towns, villages, businesses and families.  I believe we in the FAA have a good news story to tell about improvements in aviation safety in recent years, and an even better story to tell about future efforts to expand and build upon the successes already achieved.

Today I would like to highlight a few areas of interest to the Committee:  the Capstone and Medallion programs, the growing use of weather cameras, particularly in remote locations, and the very practical benefits of the Rural Alaska Lighting program.

As I’ve often said, aviation safety will always be the first priority at the FAA.  Every decision we make is with the safety of the flying public in mind.  Let me begin this morning by describing how serious the FAA is in pursuing the goal of increased aviation safety in Alaska.  When I first came to the FAA, we put in place a strategic business plan – we call it our Flight Plan – with specific objectives and performance targets.  The FAA’s Flight Plan for 2004-2008 lists among the safety objectives for the next five years a specific objective, “Reduce Accidents in Alaska.”  The stated strategy is to expand and accelerate the implementation of safety and air navigation improvements programs here.  It is noteworthy because no other state was listed individually, only Alaska.  Why, you might ask, does the FAA Flight Plan have a specific objective of improving aviation safety in Alaska?  The answer is simple, Alaska has been called the “flyingest state in the union.”  It is a place where schoolchildren board aircraft to travel to school, instead of a bus.  When someone in a village is ill and needs medical attention, they will most likely be transported to the hospital via aircraft.  As an essential mode of everyday transportation, aviation must be a safe mode.

A 1999 study by the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) ranked being a commercial airline pilot as the most hazardous occupation in Alaska.  Clearly, a focused, dedicated, multifaceted, approach to improving aviation safety in Alaska was needed.  I am happy to say the approach we are taking, one that represents the collective efforts of aviators, the State of Alaska, and the FAA, is working.

The most promising initiative with potential for broad application to a range of hazards, including terrain, other airborne traffic, and weather, is the Capstone demonstration program in the Alaska Region.  Capstone is a technology-focused safety program in Alaska that seeks near term safety and efficiency gains in aviation by accelerating implementation and use of modern technology, in both avionics and ground system infrastructure.  The key enabling technology on which Capstone is based is Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B).  ADS-B gives an aircraft with the requisite data uplink/downlink and cockpit display capabilities the same information about other aircraft in the vicinity as air traffic control now receives.  Capstone Phase I, which began in 1999, included the installation of government-furnished Global Positioning System (GPS) driven avionics suites in 200 commercial aircraft serving the region around Bethel, Alaska, known as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region (YK Delta), consisting of over 160,000 square miles.  One of the two approved datalink technologies for ADS-B, the Universal Access Transceiver (UAT) also provides an uplink for weather information via Flight Information Services-Broadcast (FIS-B).  The weather data is displayed on the same multifunction cockpit display used for the ADS-B display of traffic, and for terrain data. 

Through 2004 the FAA Alaskan Region Capstone Program has achieved significant safety and efficiency results.  Capstone equipped aircraft have had a consistently lower accident rate than non-equipped aircraft.  From 2000 through 2004, the rate of accidents for Capstone-equipped aircraft dropped significantly--by 47 percent.  Also, the rate of accidents for Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region-based air carriers has been falling since 2001, and is now at the lowest rate since 1990.  Historically, the rate of air taxi accidents within the YK Delta has been two to four times the rest of Alaska, but in 2003 the accident rate for the region was below the rest of the state for the first time.  That is real progress.

Phase II of Capstone will expand the coverage to southeast Alaska, in the Juneau area, and Phase III contemplates expanding the program to cover the entire state.  Also as part of Phase II, additional technology infrastructure will be deployed.  New Area Navigation (RNAV) and Required Navigation Procedure (RNP) arrival and departure procedures will continue to be developed for the airports recommended by the industry for upgrade to Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) access.  RNAV procedures provide flight path guidance incorporated in taxi procedures, with minimal instructions required during departure by air traffic controllers.  RNP is on-board technology that promises to add to capacity by allowing pilots to fly more direct point-to-point routes reliably and accurately.  Key benefits of RNAV and RNP include more efficient use of airspace, with improved flight profiles, resulting in significant fuel efficiencies to the airlines. An airport-to-airport Global Positioning System (GPS)/Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) based route structure will be mapped between all IFR airports.  Aircraft avionics equipage is key to an accelerated implementation strategy; therefore Capstone will continue to pursue affordable avionics so that aircraft owners will have a range of choices appropriate to their operational needs.  This includes both creating options for equipage and a strategy to ensure that all aircraft in Alaska are equipped.

In addition to technology improvements, the FAA has also undertaken safety management and training efforts in partnership with the aviation community here to increase safety awareness and reduce aircraft accidents.  In joint efforts with the Medallion Foundation, a non-profit aviation safety organization that provides management resources, training and support to the Alaskan aviation community, the FAA is funding a program known as the Five Star Shield program, which is an enhanced safety management system.  The Medallion Five Star Shield program takes a business-like approach to safety, providing for the setting of goals as well as planning and measuring performance in specific areas through the use of system safety concepts.  The program is voluntary, and focuses on establishing and sustaining an elevated level of safety performance through:  the development of a safety culture that holds safety as a core value; continuous professional development of individual skills and competence; proactive sharing of operational control responsibilities; hazard identification and risk management; and management practices that support the organization’s safety objectives.

The Five Stars in the Medallion Five Star Shield program include numerous methods for improving safety.  To earn the First Star, each air carrier must establish a safety program which, at a minimum, should include safety meetings and audits, the use of root-cause analysis, hazard identification, incident investigations, and a viable emergency response plan.  The Five Star program also requires a classroom training program for pilots, mechanics and ground service personnel, as well as required training on a PC-based computer simulator.  Two annual check rides are required to receive this second Star, and annual pilot proficiency check rides are required to keep the Star.  The Third Star involves operational risk management.  A dynamic system that provides analytical tools as well as a system of checks and balances to proactively identify hazards and manage risks is required.  The carrier must have an operational risk management system that quantifies the risks for each flight, including weather, airport, and crew readiness.  The total risk score determines if the flight is conducted normally, if more management evaluation is required for release of the flight, or if the flight is cancelled.  The Fourth Star concerns maintenance and ground service operations, requiring specific training and manning levels.  The Fifth Star is an internal audit program, which requires incorporation of a proactive internal audit system that focuses on the use of systems safety principles, as well as regulatory compliance.  This is a comprehensive audit program requirement intended to allow the operator to continuously monitor their operating systems and provide for continuous improvement.  Medallion has specific detailed requirements.

The FAA is supporting the Medallion Foundation in the implementation of this program. Once an applicant has received all five Stars, and passed an independent audit, they may be certified for the Medallion Shield, which is attested to by a decal displayed on the aircraft, and can be used on uniforms and promotional materials.  In order to maintain shield status, the operator must successfully pass an audit each year.  If the operator fails to pass the audit, or Medallion on-site inspectors notice that a specific activity represented by a star is not being properly addressed on a continuing basis, the star and shield may be revoked.  A direct benefit of the Shield program for operators is that the insurance industry has agreed to provide favorable rates for Shield carriers.

It’s worth noting here that the FAA and the Medallion Foundation are not just focused on improving safety in commercial operations, but are also targeting improvements to safety in the general aviation (GA) community as well.  Our efforts in this area are coordinated through the Medallion Flyer General Aviation Program, which is proving to be quite popular among the GA community.  Interested pilots begin by submitting an application to the Medallion Foundation, which will then issue the pilot a free copy of the FAA “Back to Basics – Runway Safety” CD.  After that, the pilot is invited to attend the FLYER Step II course, which provides access to free usage of Medallion state-of-the-art flight training devices.  During this course, pilots are provided with tools designed to help establish a personal safety program.  They are also introduced to hazard assessment and risk management techniques.  Pilots also receive important information on flying in “white out” and “flat” light conditions, risk assessment, pilot/ATC communications, and Alaska flying tips.

The Capstone and Medallion programs clearly demonstrate that better information, better training, and better risk-management procedures can contribute significantly to reductions in aviation accidents and save lives.  People here in Alaska can be very proud of the progress they’ve made.  Alaska has set an example for the rest of the country.

The on-going and increasing deployment of weather cameras in numerous parts of Alaska is another beneficial use of technology that can dramatically improve aviation safety by providing near real-time information to help with pilot decision making and risk management.  There are currently 55 operational locations for weather cameras, which stretch into every region of the state, and 12 more operational sites will be available in 2005.  Many of these weather cameras are positioned in or near mountain passes and other geographical features which are often used by pilots to navigate on their flights.  The other feature of these cameras that is so beneficial to pilots is that they are often located at rural airports where there are no weather observers, and no other means to find out what current weather conditions are prior to deciding to take off.  They are also co-located with automated weather systems, providing additional visual information previously only available at those few sites with a weather observer.

These cameras, all of which can be viewed at one website, http://akweathercams.faa.gov, provide two images from each camera located at the site.  One image is a file photo of the area within the camera’s range on a clear, sunny day.  The other image is a real-time photo, which is refreshed every 10 minutes, of the exact same view as the file photo.  This provides an instant visual comparison of weather conditions, precipitation, cloud cover, ceiling, and visibility. 

The real value in these weather cameras is that they help pilots decide whether to even begin their flight, based on weather conditions, rather than have the pilots have to make difficult and hazardous decisions once they have encountered the deteriorating weather conditions in flight.  Flight service specialists also have access to the weather camera images, and routinely brief pilots on the weather camera images when they call for a pre-flight briefing and during their flight, providing the most up-to-date information on the weather camera images to help pilots make that “go or no-go” decision.  During an independent study conducted between December 2002 and March 2003 by Parker Associates, Inc., 68 percent of the reported decisions made based on weather cameras were to cancel or delay a flight due to weather.  Air carriers, commercial operators, and general aviation pilots can avoid the cost of fuel from flights that must be diverted or repeated due to bad weather.  Cameras have a positive financial impact on an industry undergoing economic challenges.  Our website for the cameras has received 1.3 million “hits” in 2003, 2.3 million “hits” in 2004, and we expect the number of “hits” to increase by another 1 million this fiscal year—a real testament to how important real time knowledge of weather conditions is for pilots.

Turning now to another area of interest to this Committee, I would like to briefly highlight the FAA’s Rural Alaska Lighting Program (RALP).  The goal of the Rural Alaska Lighting Program is to install airport lighting in communities with limited access to 24-hour medical facilities, to provide better access and improved lighting for aeromedical services.  The Program is comprised of three tiers.  Tier One is Medium Intensity Runway Lighting (MIRLs) or permanent edge lighting at those airports that meet minimum safety requirements.  Tier Two is portable, battery-powered lights for communities or airports that are unable to accommodate permanent edge lights.  Tier Three is Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) and Runway End Identifier Lights (REILs) to support approach procedures at airports. 

This program began in 2001 with a study that identified 63 communities needing the improved lighting.  Federal funding began in FY02.  In addition to the $35 million that has been appropriated for this effort so far under the FAA’s Facilities and Equipment program, the Airport Improvement Program has provided the funding for necessary runway pavement or runway safety area improvements.  All of the 63 communities have received at least an interim solution to provide for 24 hour VFR aeromedical access.  Twenty-six of the 63 communities have also received permanent lighting solutions.  An additional 19 communities will have permanent lighting solutions by 2010.  The final 18 communities have complicated land and/or environmental issues, but we will continue to work with the State of Alaska to resolve all outstanding issues.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, I want to take a moment to mention the great contributions to aviation safety in Alaska made by a true visionary, Tom Wardleigh.  Mr. Wardleigh shared his vision for the future of aviation in Alaska with you and all Alaskan aviators in testimony to this body in 1999.  That vision is now part of Mr. Wardleigh’s legacy.  The FAA is pleased to announce the creation of a new National safety award in honor of the late Thomas Wardleigh, Master Pilot, Master Mechanic, elder statesman of aviation.   As with so many of this region’s innovations, Mr. Wardleigh’s contribution to aviation safety is now a national asset.  Tom urged the FAA to strive for exceptional customer service and to be a proving ground for new ideas.  He was a visionary who knew that if we could make an idea work in Alaska with all of its challenges, it would benefit all of aviation.

Mr. Wardleigh’s wife, Jan, is with us today.  I hope she is pleased with our memorial to him.   I know that this award has special meaning for you, Mr. Chairman, as I have been told that you received your floatplane rating from Tom just a few years ago

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, let me reiterate what I said at the outset of my testimony today – aviation safety is, and always will be, the first priority at the FAA.  These programs I have discussed are the leading edge of efforts to improve aviation safety for everyone, and Alaska is once again showing the way.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to testify today on such an important topic.  I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Testimony Mode: 
Testimony Date: 
Tuesday, July 5, 2005
Submit Feedback >