On October 14, the FAA released the final report of its Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative (FAASI). Developed in response to a recommendation from the NTSB, which followed that agency’s 2019 Most Wanted List Roundtable on Alaska Part 135 Flight Operations, the report addresses such longstanding issues as Alaska’s underfunded and broken infrastructure, lack of certified weather availability for published instrument approaches, and broad gaps in areas of communication and surveillance.
The report noted plans to install eight more Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS) at rural airports by September 2022, increasing the total number in the state to 97. Along with Automated Surface Observation Systems and trained human weather observers, AWOS provide certified weather reports necessary for pilots to fly instrument approach procedures.
According to the FAASI, there are 133 ASOS weather reporting stations in Alaska, compared with about 1,800 in the lower 48 states. However, there are 396 public-use airports in the state, of which 284 are on land, 108 are seaplane bases, and four are heliports. (The FAA lists airports equipped with surface weather stations online.)
Neither the FAASI final report nor the earlier interim report published in April provide the number of airports that have instrument approach procedures but lack necessary weather reporting. The final report states there are 112 airports that lack instrument approaches.
This has been a longstanding problem in the state and inhibited the success of FAA and industry efforts to increase the use of IFR operations. It was a primary topic not only at the 2019 NTSB roundtable but also among the stakeholders who participated in the FAASI process. These individuals represented Part 91 and 135 operators and pilots, the University of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and associations such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Their comments comprise more than 43 pages of the 85-page final report.
In the 2019 roundtable, Dan Knesek, v-p of operations for Part 135 commuter Grant Aviation, tackled the problem of IFR investment head-on, saying, “As long as the appropriations for Alaska and the FAA are made based on a cost-benefit analysis, putting an AWOS or an instrument approach in a tiny little village in western Alaska is never going to pass that. So we can have all these meetings and do all we want, but we need to be able to come up with the money and the investment on the federal side…Tell us to fly IFR, provide us the infrastructure to do it.”
Several stakeholders took issue with a statement on this subject from the interim FAASI which reads in part: “a substantial segment of Part 135 operations in Alaska will remain VFR-centric regardless of FAA efforts to enhance the use of IFR routes and suitably equipped aircraft.” The final report also says, “Many of the aircraft used for…Part 135 operations in Alaska are only equipped for VFR flight.”
By failing to quantify the terms “substantial” and “many” or differentiate between commuter and seasonal tour operations, the FAASI team instigated a conflict in perspective that has plagued members of the state’s aviation community and the FAA for decades. As one stakeholder put it: “There is a circle that the aviators need to invest in equipment, but they don’t want to pay the expense when the FAA doesn’t invest in the infrastructure. The FAA doesn’t want to invest in the infrastructure until the aviators equip their aircraft. Need to find a solution to the circle so both the FAA and aviators can move forward.”
There are no specific funding amounts related to the expansion of IFR infrastructure discussed in the FAASI although the final report does note that airports must make their own determinations to apply for Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding for equipment such as AWOS. In Fiscal Year 2021, an award of $364 million was anticipated for federal funding of Alaska via the AIP.
Another topic that was much discussed in the initiative was ADS-B, for which Alaska holds a unique historical position. Because of the federally funded Capstone program, which ran from 1999-2006, Alaska was at the forefront of ADS-B development. Unfortunately, due to budget considerations, the state still does not have full coverage. (In the 2019 roundtable it was noted that Alaska, although it contains 20 percent of the landmass of the lower 48 only has 42 ground-based transmitters versus about 600.)
In 2007, the FAA’s Surveillance and Broadcast Services Capstone Statewide Plan was developed and approved—with industry input. It identified nine “service volume” areas to receive coverage and five that did not meet the necessary “benefit-to-cost ratio.” Ten years later, AOPA pushed for expansion of ADS-B coverage, specifically in Alaska. The FAASI final report classified this expansion as a high priority and the FAA is awaiting a funding decision for the final five areas.
One issue that was not addressed by the FAASI concerns FAA staffing. As detailed in an August analysis of three accidents involving Alaskan Part 135 operator Taquan Air Service, ample evidence of FAA inspectors subjected to heavy assignment loads can be found in NTSB accident dockets.
In the Taquan investigations, principal operations inspectors (POIs) stated responsibility for anywhere from 30 to 67 operators. Further, in an 18-month period surrounding Taquan’s three accidents—which included nine fatalities and 15 serious injuries—the Ketchikan-based company had five different POIs, two of which were based 2,800 miles away in South Carolina.
At the time the article on Taquan Air was published, the FAA stated it “has increased inspector staffing in all of the Alaska safety offices as we have elsewhere in the country. The number of operators per inspector is in line with agency standards.”
However, four days before the FAASI report’s release, the FAA closed the Polaris Certificate Management Office (CMO) in Anchorage. This office, which was established less than a decade ago following a series of Part 135 accidents, was responsible for dedicated oversight to the largest Part 135 commuters in Alaska. According to the FAA, the CMO’s inspectors have now all returned to offices in the state where standard assignment duties are performed.
The next step for the FAASI team is formation of a “tiger” team to “develop the roadmap based on the recommendations in the FAASI final report with a prioritized emphasis on those recommendations that may be quickly integrated into the national airspace.” That report will be released no later than September 2022.