NTSB Calls For Stricter Oversight Of Part 91 Ops

Two pilots and five passengers were killed when an historic B-17G crashed at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Connecticut, on Oct. 2, 2019. Credit: NTSB

The NTSB is calling for stricter FAA oversight of commercial passenger-carrying flights conducted under Part 91 general aviation rules, including moving all air tours under Part 135 operating requirements.

During a March 23 virtual meeting, NTSB board members made six safety recommendations after considering a draft aviation investigation report on revenue, passenger-carrying Part 91 operations such as air tours, parachute jumps, aerobatic or historic aircraft experience flights and sightseeing balloon trips. Among the recommendations, the board called on the FAA to develop national safety standards “or equivalent regulations” for such flights and require that operators implement safety management systems (SMS) the FAA now requires for just airlines.

“If I was to characterize those recommendations in non-legal terms, what we’ve asked the FAA to do is have a different regulatory framework—a more robust framework for these types of operations,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said during a press briefing following the meeting. 

“We’d like [the FAA] to identify shortcomings in the current regulatory structure,” Sumwalt added. “We want them, for these revenue passenger-carrying flights under Part 91, to develop an SMS. We want better guidance for the FAA inspectors when providing surveillance of these types of operations. And basically, we also want a database of these operators so that the FAA will know where they are located to do better surveillance.”

NTSB staff developed the aviation investigation report based on eight example aircraft accidents that overall caused 45 fatalities and injured 12 people. One of the accidents— the July 30, 2016, crash of a sightseeing balloon near Lockhart, Texas, killed the pilot and all 15 passengers. It remains the deadliest U.S. aviation accident since the Colgan Air crash outside of Buffalo, New York, in February 2009.

“These operations, which carry thousands of passengers for compensation or hire each year, are not held to the same maintenance, airworthiness and operational standards as other commercial operations such as Part 121 air carrier and Part 135 commuter and on-demand [operations],” said Eliott Simpson, NTSB senior accident investigator, during the board meeting. “Instead, these operations are conducted under less stringent requirements of Part 91, which also covers general aviation. Those who participate in Part 91 commercial activities are likely unaware of the differences in safety requirements.”

The otherwise general aviation operations can carry passengers for compensation through a variety of mechanisms, such as regulatory exceptions, exemptions and omissions, or by “exploiting regulatory loopholes such as transporting or carrying passengers for purposes other than the regulations intended,” said Simpson. Review of the accidents identified a series of recurring safety issues, including a lack of FAA oversight, lack of structured pilot training, deficiencies in pilot skills and decision-making, and inadequate aircraft maintenance, he added.

The NTSB reiterated a recommendation—designated A-19-31—that it made to the FAA following the March 11, 2018 crash of an Airbus Helicopters AS350B2 Ecureuil in the East River in New York City. Five passengers were trapped in their harnesses and died when the Liberty Helicopters’ pilot attempted an emergency landing in the river during a “doors-off” aerial photography flight.

While the safety board is not recommending that all Part 91 operations be subject to Part 135 requirements, it believes that air tours specifically should be held to that standard, Simpson said.

“We’re not recommending a wholesale move over to Part 135,” he told reporters after the meeting. “We continue to believe the best position for [air tours] is in the Part 135 sphere, but we’re not making that recommendation for the other revenue passenger-carrying operations that we are talking about.”

Bill Carey

Based in Washington, D.C., Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.


1 Comment
David Frawley, RIP, would turn over in his grave if he saw what happened to 909. David, from Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, an aviator of renown, made sure that the pilots and the mechanics and the airplane was in good shape. He flew and instructed on all the old planes and made sure that they were flyable and maintained well. Shame on you guys If you don't know who Dave was.
Dan McCarthy, ATP