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More Regulations on the Horizon? NTSB Chair Eyes Niche Commercial Operations

A Gander Into the Regulatory Crystal Ball May Reveal a Hunt to Close 'Loopholes' Surrounding Part 119 Operations

A recent statement supporting additional regulation by NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy might chart the course for incoming rulemaking, if the FAA listens. 

Homendy referenced an NTSB report pushing for additional oversight and regulation over a number of niche passenger operations. Under an investigation regarding what the Board calls "Part 119-exploited activity", the NTSB collated a number of off-the-wall flight operations that it believes require some additional rulemaking to end. Activities like parachute jump flights, commercial glider sightseeing flights, or aerial photography flights as tourist journeys all incurred previous investigations. Some operators in such lines of work may engage in exempted, omitted, or exploited portions of Part 119 in what the Board refers to as "inappropriately capitalizing on the exceptions" of the code, like a tour flight operating as student instruction. 

Those "loopholes" aren't the only sticking point in the code, either, as the Board refers to commercial glider sightseeing flights as having "essentially been operating with almost no oversight," because of a "regulatory omission." The report adds that the FAA's oversight and surveillance of Part 91 "do not ensure that these operators are properly maintaining their aircraft and safely conducting operations."

So what's the solution? A registry. (Isn't it always a registry? We can never have too many databases, bureaucrats seem to feel every issue can be solved by the creation of new lists.) The NTSB report cites the "lack of a national database for revenue passenger-carrying operations currently conducted under Title 14 CFR Part 91 precludes the Federal Aviation Administration from ensuring that its inspectors are overseeing all of these operators." 

Once in place, the database would theoretically allow the FAA to implement a "safety management system for all revenue passenger carrying operators" under the section that would "help company managers, pilots, and other employees identify and mitigate risks and promote the safety of these operations." Furthermore, the report states that FAA oversight of the operator's safety management system would "help ensure that the system is adequately identifying and appropriately mitigating safety risks."

What the fixes seem to fail to truly address is how to actually halt the occurrence of such fringe cases in aviation. Adding considerable burden to FAA inspectors to address a fairly rare sort of flight operation - after all, how common can anyone say they've seen an "air combat and extreme aerobatic experience flight operating as student instruction", a la the Four Corners, California flight listed as a "Part 119-exploited activity"? Perhaps the more common "loopholes', as some would likely think of them would be something like the aforementioned "exploited activity" that saw a "nonstop commercial air tour flight operating as an aerial photography flight" would be far better served with improved pilot and operator education, as opposed to the creation of yet another inscrutable serialization, database, and inspection scheme on top of all the other paperwork already required of those in commercial aviation? 

For now, the NTSB report lies in its databanks, eagerly awaiting the day an enterprising bureaucrat sees a bountiful new crop of busy work to perform. For the rest of the industry, maybe it would be advisable to ensure a healthy understanding of both the letter and the spirit of the law when operating on a commercial basis. It could save us all a lot of headaches. 



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