The White House has leaked word that it intends to nominate Deborah Hersman, the current chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, to become the new secretary of transportation. She's a good choice. Hersman, who was picked for the NTSB by President George W. Bush in 2004, has raised the NTSB's profile by speeding up probes into commercial aviation accidents and pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to give NTSB investigators more access to documents and reports. She has made admirable efforts to locate potential safety issues before they result in actual tragedies.
Here's one thing Hersman can do to hit the ground running if she becomes transportation secretary: remove the FAA's exemption for gliders from regulations requiring aircraft to carry anti-midair-collision devices.
The NTSB has recommended that the FAA make precisely this change on numerous occasions, most recently in 2008. The FAA has consistently come back with excuses that it is still investigating the efficacy of such a rule. More likely, it is ignoring the NTSB's recommendation.
It's an issue in which Hersman is quite well-versed. At a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday, she talked about her efforts to promote the use of these anti-collision devices, including specifically the glider exemption: "The NTSB has investigated accidents in which gliders were involved. In particular, there was a NetJet aircraft that collided with a glider in midair. The glider pilot did come down safely, and the business jet was able to land safely. But out of that investigation we realized we have great [anti-collision] technology, but if only 50 percent of the equation is equipped with that technology, you are not really going to get the benefit of it. On a jet you are going to be coming up really quickly on something you could collide with, like a glider. So you want everyone to have some awareness of that."
If anything, she understates the potential for accidents. There have been at least 28 collisions or near-misses and seven fatalities since 1998, according to federal data.
The main private association for glider pilots, the Soaring Society of America, says there are lightweight, commercially available transponders that would prevent such incidents. The SSA's lobbyist has even written the NTSB recommending the devices be mandatory. Only the FAA itself seems stuck on this. Getting this oversight fixed is the proverbial low-hanging fruit -- and a good way for an incoming transportation secretary to get things rolling once she takes office.