Since Michael Huerta became administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration on New Year's Day, the agency has issued new regulations on a wide range of issues, including pilot qualification, occupational safety rules for working in an aircraft and how to integrate “unmanned systems” — i.e. drones — with U.S. airspace.
It is a telling example of federal priorities that when it comes to airline safety, extending the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's voluminous rule book to commercial jet aircraft cockpits and expanding the use of drones in domestic surveillance rank among the top achievements. This is as opposed to, say, preventing passenger aircraft carrying hundreds of men, women and children from flying into midair collisions with gliders that went undetected until it was too late.
In 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the FAA require all gliders to carry transponders or similar devices that alert other aircraft to their presence in crowded airspaces, especially around busy commercial airports. Such transponders are standard equipment on powered aircraft, but gliders are exempt from this regulation. This odd glitch in the law has contributed to at least 28 collisions or near-misses and seven fatalities in crashes involving gliders and powered planes since 1998, according to federal data. Only by the grace of God were there not many more fatalities.
The original reason for the exception was that the anti-collision devices, which used radar, were too heavy for gliders to carry. That is no longer the case thanks to digital, miniaturized battery-powered electronics. During a discussion with reporters in February about such a near-collision involving a Netjet airliner, NTSB acting chairwoman Deborah Hersman pointed out that the new devices use GPS and are much lighter.
“Out of that investigation, we realized we have great 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 gliders,” she said.
In fact, the digital devices are standard equipment on European gliders. The Soaring Society of America, which represents private glider enthusiasts, has endorsed making them mandatory. The only thing standing in the way of this common-sense regulation is the FAA itself. Supposedly the agency is working on it. A year ago, it held a public meeting on requiring the devices in gliders and other aircraft without electrical systems, then solicited public comments on a proposed rule. An FAA spokesman was unable to say whether the requirement had been finalized.
What is left to do but have the appropriate officials sign off on it? Has the issue fallen off the FAA’s radar? Maybe, but Huerta has talked with Hersman at least seven times this year, according to his official schedule. Not every discussion could have been about ensuring stewardesses aren’t scalded while serving coffee to passengers or how to keep drones from hitting tall buildings while covertly photographing law-abiding citizens. Huerta should move on this issue now.