Flight tour operators will be required to improve their safety plans

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There have been a number of floatplane accidents in Alaska in recent years.
There have been a number of floatplane accidents in Alaska in recent years. Photo Credit: Vineyard Perspective

The FAA has proposed a rule requiring air charter and tour operators to develop comprehensive safety plans for their aircraft, including seaplanes, floatplanes and helicopters.

The rule would extend to those flight operators a requirement that has been in place for commercial airlines since 2018. 

Specifically, the rule would require the operators to develop Safety Management System (SMS) programs, which are a set of policies and procedures in which aviation companies identify, monitor and address operational problems before those problems become serious. 

SMS systems are required to have four components: safety policies, safety risk management, safety assurance and safety promotion. 

In addition, the rule would require companies to document their system and retain records produced under the system. 

"Expanding safety management systems to other players in the aviation industry will reduce accidents and incidents and save lives," acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen said in a prepared remark. "As safe and efficient as our system is today, we must always strive to achieve the next level of safety."

As part of the new regulatory proposal, the FAA provided examples of fatal crashes that might have been avoided had SMS programs been in place. In one example, the agency cited a seaplane tour operated by Alaska-based Promech Air in June 2015 out of Ketchikan that crashed into a mountain, killing the pilot and eight Holland America Line passengers who were on an excursion. 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the crash was caused by the pilot's decision to continue visual flight under conditions that required flight instruments. Among the contributing factors identified by the NTSB were Promech's lack of a formal safety program and a company culture that tacitly endorsed flying in hazardous weather.

"If the proposed rule had been in effect during this time, the operator would have had requirements that may have prevented or mitigated an accident such as this one," the FAA said. 

Through the years, a number of other tour operators have had fatal accidents. 

For example, another seaplane operating out of Ketchikan and carrying Holland America Line passengers crashed in August 2021, killing the pilot and five cruise passengers. 

In May 2019, three floatplane crashes happened in Alaska, including one in which two aircraft collided, killing six Princess Cruises passengers who were on an excursion. 

The public can comment on the proposed rule through March 13.

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