August 11, 2009
The Honorable J. Randolph Babbitt
Federal Aviation Administration
800 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, D.C. 20591
Dear Administrator Babbitt:
We write to request that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) immediately regulate New York City's congested and dangerous airspace. Saturday's midair crash between a sightseeing helicopter and a small airplane over the Hudson River is a tragic and powerful reminder of what we have known for some time - that the virtually nonexistent oversight of small on-demand aircraft must come to an end, particularly in New York's heavily congested airspace. The Hudson River flight corridor must not continue to be the Wild West. The FAA must act immediately, before further lives are lost.
It is unfortunate that the FAA insisted to us for years that it lacked statutory authority to regulate the airspace in the New York City corridor below 1,100 feet altitude. We are gratified, that yesterday [Monday], the FAA reversed its position and agreed it has statutory authority to regulate this airspace. It is tragic that it took nine deaths to produce this belated concession.
Now, the FAA should swiftly use its authority to prevent future tragedies.
First, the FAA should take immediate steps to implement the recommendations of the Department of Transportation Inspector General (DOT IG), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the FAA Advisory Committee for these types of aircraft operations. At a minimum, the FAA must require the installation of the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS-II), and a Mode C Transponder, on all aircraft that seat less than 10 people. Any additional common-sense measures that can be implemented should be done so immediately.
Second, the FAA should carefully review this incident, along with other factors, and determine what additional improvements can be made in the near term and long term to improve the management of the region's airspace. For example, the FAA should examine the feasibility of moving to a satellite-based system for air traffic management that could provide greater technological capability to manage flight traffic below 1,500 feet. In the meantime, every helicopter and general aviation aircraft should be required to file flight plans, even for trips under 1,100 feet. In addition, we should seriously consider banning all flights below 1,100 feet until radar systems are available to track them.
The Hudson River flight corridor presents unique challenges, but the danger of unregulated on-demand aircraft is also a widespread problem in the New York region and the country. According to the DOT IG, there were 33 accidents and 109 fatalities involving on-demand aircraft in 2007 and 2008. And these types of collisions have been happening for decades. In 1989, following a similar accident in Southern California, Congress passed legislation to accelerate the development of collision-avoidance systems. In 1994, the FAA took action to regulate dangerous helicopter tours in Hawaii. Just this year, the FAA initiated a rule making to increase safety operations of emergency medical service helicopters.
Despite the decades of incidents, studies, and recommendations, much work remains to be done. We call on the FAA to take immediate action to provide greater oversight of small aircraft operations throughout the country, the New York region, and in particular, of the Hudson River flight corridor in New York. We stand ready to work with you to provide the FAA with whatever additional resources might be necessary to improve the safety of New York's congested airspace.