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Highlights

Ice formation on aircraft can disrupt the smooth flow of air over the wings and prevent the aircraft from taking off or decrease the pilot's ability to maintain control of the aircraft. Takeoff and landing operations can also be risky in winter weather. Despite persistent efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and others to mitigate icing risks, icing remains a serious concern. GAO reviewed (1) the extent to which commercial airplanes have experienced accidents and incidents related to icing, (2) FAA's inspection and enforcement activities related to icing, (3) the efforts of FAA and others to improve safety in winter weather, and (4) the challenges that continue to affect aviation safety in winter weather. GAO analyzed data obtained from FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and others. Further, GAO obtained information from FAA and NTSB officials and representatives of key aviation industry stakeholders.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 1. To help facilitate FAA's and other stakeholders' efforts to address challenges to improving safety in icing and winter weather conditions, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to develop a comprehensive plan, in consultation with public and private stakeholders, to guide these efforts. The plan should focus on winter operations holistically, be clearly communicated to all affected parties, and include detailed goals, milestones, and time frames that can be used to gauge performance and progress, identify gaps, and determine areas for improvement. FAA should also periodically report to affected parties on its progress in implementing the plan, as well as any updates to the plan.
Closed - Implemented
In July 2010, we reported that although large commercial airplanes have experienced few icing-related accidents since 1998, the many reported icing incidents suggest that icing is an ongoing risk to aviation safety, including the safety of large commercial airplanes. We noted that FAA's efforts to reduce safety risks associated with icing and winter weather operating conditions could benefit from more formal and holistic planning. In particular, we found that FAA's most recent aircraft icing plan was from 1997 and the scope of this plan did not include icing issues occurring on the ground, yet contaminated runways resulting from icing and winter weather pose hazards to planes during takeoff and landing, and removing ice or preventing ice from forming on aircraft occurs not only during flight, but also on the ground prior to takeoff. To facilitate FAA's efforts to improve safety in icing and winter weather conditions, we recommended that FAA, in consultation with public and private stakeholders, develop a comprehensive aircraft icing plan that focuses on winter operations holistically. FAA responded to this recommendation by developing a comprehensive Aircraft Icing Plan in August 2012 that addresses both in-flight and ground icing issues. FAA consulted with public and private stakeholders in preparing the plan, stating that it benefited greatly from views and information provided by aerospace industry members and research organizations through technical exchanges, international conferences, standards meetings, and other venues. According to FAA, the new Aircraft Icing Plan will reassess past ideas and actions and address new issues and emerging technology. This approach is intended to keep FAA's focus on the effectiveness of past efforts and to use current data and technology to improve aviation safety in the areas associated with winter operations. With the new plan, FAA said that it intends on continuing to work with other agencies and organizations in identifying vulnerabilities and mitigations needed. As a result, the plan will help FAA improve icing and winter operations across the aviation community.

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