Lacking oversight, agencies self-police their own aircraft safety standards

Agencies emphasize self-supervision at an aviation safety forum.

Government agencies that fly their own aircraft also must oversee their own safety standards -- a situation that has some federal and local officials worried.

U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue helicopters, the Forest Service's fleet for combating wildfires and NASA aircraft that train astronauts, for instance, are not subject to the oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We have to provide our own oversight," Texas Department of Public Safety Captain Tim Ochsner said Wednesday at a National Transportation Safety Board forum attended by representatives from federal, state and local service branches. "If we don't do that, no one's going to do it for us."

NTSB has investigated more than 300 public aircraft accidents in the past decade, including 120 deaths and 160 injuries. Every year more than 2,000 aircraft are operated under public status and are flown for more than 1 million hours, according to the board's website.

Agencies employ safety standards developed by the Interagency Committee for Aviation Policy, which was formed by the General Services Administration in 1992 to oversee aircraft lacking FAA supervision. ICAP counts every federal agency that owns or leases aircraft among its members. According to the committee's 2008-2013 strategic plan, ICAP's goals include reducing aircraft accidents within the federal government 30 percent by 2013.

Though ICAP's role is consultative, federal agency representatives at the forum overwhelmingly spoke out in its favor.

"Over the last 10 years that I've participated in the ICAP, NASA has definitely improved because of it," said panelist Jamal Abbed, aviation safety officer for NASA's aircraft division. Abbed attributed the committee's success to the communication and collaboration it fosters between its members.

"It is a very good avenue for addressing aviation safety on both a micro and macro level," said fellow panelist Kurt Larson, aviation quality assurance representative at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, whose parent agency, the Commerce Department, is a member of ICAP.

Robert Sumwalt, board member and former NTSB vice chairman, praised those in attendance for their oversight work, but emphasized that their approach, which relies heavily on self-governing according to ICAP standards, would not work for every agency.

"I'm not worried about you," he told those present at the forum. "I'm worried about the other departments, the ones who aren't here."