The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) maintains a list of its Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements, which includes their recommendations for safety improvements in aviation. The issues listed often require action by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but changes in the safety of aviation can be slow to come. What are the currently needed improvements identified by the NTSB, and why aren’t they being addressed by our government?
Top eight aviation safety improvements for 2017–2018
Since 1967, the NTSB has issued thousands of aviation safety improvement recommendations, and there are still hundreds of recommendations that have yet to be implemented. According to this year’s list from the NTSB, the following safety improvements are the most wanted for American aviation in 2017:
- Ensure the safe shipment of hazardous materials. Although hazardous materials aren’t transported by plane as often as they are transported by rail, lithium battery use in the aviation industry poses a similar threat to safety. The NTSB recommends putting additional focus on better response, training, notification, and resource allocation for first responders in aviation emergencies.
- Prevent loss of control in flight in general aviation. Loss of control in flight is the number-one cause of death in general aviation. To combat the problem, the NTSB recommends better training for pilots, which includes information about avoiding dangerous behaviors, managing weather conditions, and how to handle stalls and other mechanical issues.
- End alcohol and other drug impairment in transportation. Impaired operators are a danger to everyone, and no one should ever operate an aircraft while under the influence. All accidents caused by a drunk or drugged transportation professional are preventable accidents. The NTSB recommends an approach that includes better laws, better enforcement, and better education of both transportation professionals and the public.
- Reduce fatigue-related accidents. Drowsy drivers cause accidents, and that is especially scary when they are “driving” an airplane. The NTSB recommends that operators and other transportation professionals get enough rest. Employers and regulators also play a part in this as they develop policy and regulation for shift length, breaks, time between shifts, etc. In previous years, the NTSB has made a number of recommendations toward this end, including setting working-hour limits for flight crews, aviation mechanics, and air traffic controllers based on fatigue research, circadian rhythms, and sleep and rest requirements. The NTSB also has recommended developing fatigue awareness and countermeasures programs for air traffic controllers.
- Require medical fitness. The people operating aircraft and ensuring air safety should be medically fit to perform their duties and keep the public safe. The NTSB recommends that employers and regulators develop policies that better ensure medical fitness, and that professionals working in the industry also take some responsibility for their own health.
- Eliminate distractions. Distracted operators are a danger, whether they are manning an airplane, truck, or train. The NTSB recommends a long-term goal of eliminating all distraction, which will take an effort by the FAA, other regulatory bodies, operators, and their employers.
- Strengthen occupant protection. Safety restraints such as seatbelts are important even on airplanes, as are the safety systems that protect occupants from post-crash threats. The NTSB recommends that these kinds of “occupant protection systems” not only be present in airplanes, but that these systems be better designed and implemented to minimize death and injury.
- Expand recorder use to enhance safety. “Black boxes” and other event recorders play an important part in aviation safety, both before and after a crash. Data from event recorders can be used to identify safety issues in regular operation, as well as determine the cause of an accident when recovered. The NTSB recommends that recorder use be mandatory in aircraft. Addressing these issues might include requiring cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) to retain at least two hours of audio, requiring back-up power sources so cockpit voice recorders collect an extra 10 minutes of data when an aircraft’s main power fails, inspecting and maintaining data recorders yearly to make sure they operate properly, and installing video recorders in cockpits to give investigators more information to solve complex accidents.
Aviation safety improvements still needed despite NTSB recommendations
NTSB lists from previous years tell a familiar story. Of the six top aviation issues previously listed by the NTSB, five were rated as “unacceptable response” with a red light on their dashboard at the time. Unfortunately, many of those previous “red light” issues have been carried over to the list for 2017, including the following familiar issues:
- Improve audio and data recorders
- Reduce accidents and incidents caused by human fatigue
The NTSB describes their aviation safety recommendations as “critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives.” If these improvements are so critical to safety of American air travel, it is shocking that the government has not taken the appropriate action to implement such necessary changes.
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