General Aviation Safety:

Additional FAA Efforts Could Help Identify and Mitigate Safety Risks

GAO-13-36: Published: Oct 4, 2012. Publicly Released: Oct 4, 2012.

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Contact:

Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
(202) 512-2834
dillinghamg@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The number of nonfatal and fatal general aviation accidents decreased from 1999 through 2011; more than 200 fatal accidents occurred in each of those years. Airplanes—particularly single-engine piston airplanes—flying personal operations were most often involved in accidents. Most general aviation accidents are attributed to pilot error and involved a loss of aircraft control. Some segments of the industry experienced accidents disproportionately to their total estimated annual flight hours. For example, among the airplane categories we reviewed, experimental amateur-built airplanes were involved in 21 percent of the fatal accidents but accounted for only 4 percent of the estimated annual flight hours. In another example, corporate operations were involved in about 1 percent of fatal accidents while accounting for 14 percent of estimated annual flight hours. We can draw some conclusions about general aviation accident characteristics, but limitations in flight activity and other data preclude a confident assessment of general aviation safety. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) survey of general aviation operators, on which the agency bases its annual flight-hour estimates, continues to suffer from methodological and conceptual limitations, even with FAA’s efforts to improve it over the years. To obtain more reliable data, FAA has discussed requiring that flight-hour data be reported, such as during annual aircraft maintenance inspections. FAA has set a goal to reduce the fatal general aviation accident rate per 100,000 flight hours by 10 percent from 2009 to 2018. However, given the diversity of the industry and shortcomings in the flight activity data, this goal is not sufficient for achieving reductions in fatality rates among the riskier segments of general aviation. Further, achieving the goal could mask continuing safety issues in segments of the community.

FAA has embarked on several initiatives to meet its goal of reducing the fatal general aviation accident rate by 2018. These include the renewal of the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) with a data-driven approach and the implementation of the Flight Standards Service’s 5-year strategy. The GAJSC, a government-industry partnership, focuses on analyzing general aviation accident data to develop effective intervention strategies. The 5-year strategy involves numerous initiatives under four focus areas: (1) risk management, (2) outreach which is composed of FAA staff and industry volunteers, will be responsible for carrying out significant portions of the strategy. While the GAJSC’s efforts are modeled on an approach deemed successful in contributing to a reduction in fatal jeopardize its potential for success. For example, the strategy lacks performance measures for the significant activities that comprise it. Without a strong performance management structure, FAA will not be able to determine the success or failure of the significant activities that underlie the 5-year strategy.

Why GAO Did This Study

Although the U.S. aviation system is one of the safest in the world, hundreds of fatalities occur each year in general aviation—which includes all forms of aviation except commercial and military. The general aviation industry is composed of a diverse fleet of over 220,000 aircraft that conduct a wide variety of operations—from personal pleasure flights in small, piston aircraft to worldwide professionally piloted corporate flights in turbine-powered aircraft. According to 2011 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) data, 92 percent of that year’s fatal accidents occurred in general aviation. The majority of general aviation accidents are attributed to pilot error. GAO was asked to examine the (1) characteristics of and trends in general 2011 and (2) recent actions taken by FAA to improve general aviation safety. GAO analyzed NTSB accident data, reviewed government and industry studies and other documents, and interviewed FAA and NTSB officials and industry stakeholders.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that FAA require the collection of general aviation aircraft flight-hour data in ways that minimize the impact on the general aviation community, set safety improvement goals for individual general aviation industry segments, and develop performance measures for the significant activities underlying the 5-year strategy. Department of Transportation officials agreed to consider GAO’s recommendations and provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Gerald L. Dillingham, Ph.D. at (202) 512-2834 or dillinghamg@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although the U.S. aviation system is one of the safest in the world, hundreds of fatalities occur each year in general aviation, which includes all forms of aviation except commercial and military. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded that about 90 percent of all fatal aviation accidents in 2011 occurred in general aviation. The majority of those accidents are attributed to pilot error. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has embarked on several initiatives to meet its goal of reducing the fatal general aviation accident rate. The FAA collaborates with industry stakeholders on the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee to analyze general aviation accident data and develop effective intervention strategies. In 2012, GAO reported that FAA's ability to effectively target accident mitigations is limited by a lack of pilot data, which could help identify the root causes of accidents and, thus, risk mitigation opportunities. For instance, FAA does not maintain information about where pilots were trained or whether noncommercial pilots participate in any recurrent training programs other than its WINGS pilot proficiency program--information that would facilitate analyses of the relationship between pilot training and the causes of general aviation accidents and that could help identify shortcomings in current pilot training programs. Private pilots are not required to participate in recurrent training, though they must successfully complete a biennial review of their skills and knowledge by a designated pilot examiner or a certified flight instructor. In recent years, as pilot training has been identified as a contributing factor in high profile accidents, there has been a renewed focus on the sources and amount of pilot training and on altering the training paradigm. FAA has been required to take steps to maintain qualification and performance data on airline pilots, but there has been no decision about whether recurrent training will be included in the database, and no such effort has been undertaken with regard to the remaining pilot population. Without this information, FAA cannot determine the potential effect of the various sources and types of training on pilot behavior, competency, and the likelihood of an accident. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA expand the data available for root cause analyses of general aviation accidents by collecting and maintaining data on each certificated pilot's recurrent training, and update the data at regular intervals. In 2017, GAO confirmed that FAA now collects the relevant data from some pilots upon completion of a flight review or instrument proficiency check. The data include information on recurrent training and flight evaluations, which FAA will use for general aviation accident analysis and other purposes. Furthermore, FAA will continue to look for new ways to improve general aviation safety, training, and oversight. As a result, FAA has begun collecting the information it needs about the training of general aviation pilots to enhance the agency's ability to identify and target risk areas and populations. Moreover, FAA is also in a better position to identify the root causes of accidents attributed to pilot error and determine appropriate risk mitigation.

    Recommendation: To enhance FAA's efforts to improve general aviation safety, and to expand the data available for root cause analyses of general aviation accidents and other purposes, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to collect and maintain data on each certificated pilot's recurrent training, and update the data at regular intervals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2017, GAO confirmed that FAA's collection of flight hour data during registration renewals or annual maintenance inspections is not feasible because it would require rulemaking and potentially have a significant economic and paperwork impact on the GA community. FAA noted that, although previously the GA Activity Survey was somewhat limited for collecting more extensive flight hour data, improvements to the survey regarding flight hour data collection have resulted in a low standard error of 1.1 percent, which means that the agency and industry can have confidence in the aggregate results regarding how GA is operated in the national airspace system. While there may have been methodological improvements to the survey, FAA's response indicates that it does not require the collection of GA flight hour data. GAO maintains that estimates from the survey still may not be sufficient for drawing conclusions about changes in crash rates over time and that more precise flight hour data could allow FAA to better target its safety efforts within the general aviation community.

    Recommendation: To enhance FAA's efforts to improve general aviation safety, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to improve measures of general aviation activity by requiring the collection of the number of hours that general aviation aircraft fly over a period of time (flight hours). FAA should explore ways to do this that minimize the impact on the general aviation community, such as by collecting the data at regular events (e.g., during registration renewals or at annual maintenance inspections) that are already required.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: GAO confirmed in August 2017 that FAA's General Aviation Joint Steering Committee has undertaken a data-driven approach to resolving and mitigating the risks associated with all General Aviation (GA) fatal accidents and is exploring different metrics for monitoring individual industry segments utilizing tools such as the GA Activity Survey but that credible metrics for each industry sub-sector are currently not feasible. However, our recommendation was for FAA to develop metrics for industry segments because we found a variety of differences in accident and fatality rates among industry segments and believe that focusing on segments with higher instances of both is a better use of FAA's limited resources.

    Recommendation: To enhance FAA's efforts to improve general aviation safety, and to ensure that ongoing safety issues are addressed, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to set specific general aviation safety improvement goals--such as targets for fatal accident reductions--for individual industry segments using a datadriven, risk management approach.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: GAO confirmed in August 2017 that FAA has established performance metrics for the activities underlying the 5-year strategy and that the GA fatal accident rate remains its primary performance measure. FAA also reported that additional performance measures would be developed in association with the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee working groups. However, FAA has provided no documentation of its metrics for the associated activities underlying the 5-year strategy therefore this recommendation remains open.

    Recommendation: To enhance FAA's efforts to improve general aviation safety, and to determine whether the programs and activities underlying the 5-year strategy are successful and if additional actions are needed, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop performance measures for each significant program and activity underlying the 5-year strategy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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