SATURDAY’S helicopter-plane collision over the Hudson stems in part from the politicization of decisions about air safety and air traffic control, both of them the province of the Federal Aviation Administration.
When a crash occurs, members of Congress from the area are quick to point fingers and call for tougher regulations. But few people realize how much Congress and aviation interest groups can be obstacles to improved air safety.
Private planes like those involved here are referred to as “general” aviation (as opposed to commercial aviation — mostly airlines). The general aviation trade associations have large memberships in every congressional district, and are very active in both lobbying and campaign donations. So when these groups take a position on aviation issues, members of Congress on aviation subcommittees feel considerable grassroots pressure to make decisions that are GA-friendly.
One example is defining the airspace under which planes needn’t file flight plans or be directed by air traffic control. That’s the category of airspace over the Hudson River below 1,100 feet, where the collision occurred.
Everyone recognizes that airspace above and around major airports must be controlled, but GA groups resist any expansion of controlled airspace, which restricts their members’ freedom to fly. In turn, because the GA crowd has a lot of clout with Congress, the FAA (which gets its budget from Congress) must take that into account in any redesign of airspace.
Another example is the use of next-generation technology to keep track of where planes are, even outside of controlled airspace. Today, all planes must carry transponders which, when interrogated by FAA radars, transmit the plane’s ID number and altitude, which appears on the air traffic controller’s display.
But radar only scans once every 5 to 12 seconds, and isn’t very effective where there is lots of ground clutter.