Watchdog warned of flight dangers

A collision between a plane and a helicopter in New York occurs soon after a federal watchdog warning about poor safety of sightseeing flights.

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The collision that sent a sightseeing helicopter full of tourists and a small plane into the Hudson River Saturday comes less than a month after a federal watchdog warned that safety oversight of sightseeing and other for-hire flights is too lax. A small plane collided with a New York City sightseeing helicopter carrying Italian tourists on Saturday just after noon local time. The accident scattered debris in the water and forced people on the New Jersey waterfront to head for cover. Authorities believe all nine people aboard the two aircraft were killed.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general sharply criticised the Federal Aviation Administration in the report for providing significantly weaker safety oversight of the "on-demand" flight industry - companies hired to fly aircraft, both helicopters and planes, that seat less than 30 people - than it does of the commercial airline industry. Criticism of the FAA's oversight of the on-demand flight industry is not new. Since 2002, the NTSB has made 16 recommendations related to safety of the on-demand flight industry. FAA has not implemented any of them.

The report noted that FAA is developing a new approach to safety oversight for for-hire operators that would target the most risky operations. However, it said the new system is not scheduled for full deployment for at least four years. The use of jets by for-hire companies is now common, for example. Operators also fly more complex types of flights and more international flights. On-demand flight operations are inspected far less frequently than commercial airliners even though they often operate under riskier conditions.

For instance, they typically fly into small airports without control towers or take off and land in remote locations, from Rocky Mountain ski slopes to the red rock canyons of the desert South-west. The inspector general's report cited as an example an on-demand operator that flies dozens of flight a day taking tourists to glaciers where the planes land and take off on skis. The operator has 17 planes and was inspected eight times by FAA in 2008. By contrast, a commercial airline with 10 planes overseen by the same FAA office received 199 inspections the same year.

For-hire industry pilots are required to have a minimum of 500 hours of flight experience and a commercial licence, while a commercial airline captain is required to have 1,500 hours of flight experience and needs to obtain the more difficult air transport licence. On-demand companies are also not required to employ an FAA-licensed dispatcher, and their aircraft do not have to be equipped with warnings systems that alert pilots when they are in danger of colliding with another aircraft or flying into the ground. Nor do they have to have cockpit voice or data recorders or inflight radar systems. There are also less stringent maintenance requirements.

* AP