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August 11th, 2009
10:09 AM ET

Expert: Restrict Hudson River airspace

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Fmr. FAA Chief of Staff Michael Goldfarb says the time is past due to restrict the airspace over the Hudson River."]

Saturday’s midair collision of a sightseeing helicopter and a single-engine plane over the Hudson River killed nine people. That crash is now raising some new questions about air safety over the Hudson and whether or not the FAA should step in.

Michael Goldfarb is the former FAA chief of staff. He says that airspace should be restricted because there is no public safety value in having small aircraft there. He spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Tuesday.

Kiran Chetry: As we've been learning in the days after this accident, the airspace in this area is virtually unregulated for small planes. And also the very popular sightseeing helicopters can fly under that 1,100 foot ceiling. It’s basically visual flight rules. Is it time for the FAA to start rethinking whether or not there needs to be more regulation in the skies over the Hudson?

Michael Goldfarb: It's way past due, Kiran. They can issue an emergency order this afternoon to airmen and airwomen, restricting that airspace. There's no public safety value having those small aircraft there, basically not under air traffic control, on their own. Some pilot described it that he had an electronic box in his aircraft, like a GPS. Every time there was a plane that came near him or a helicopter or some other kind of vehicle, it would squeak traffic and it was a constant traffic, traffic, traffic.

That's how busy it is. So you're asking a pilot, some of whom have not gone through that kind of airspace, to not only see and be seen, visual flight rules, but they’re also sightseeing, looking at the Statue of Liberty. It's past time to get the small aircraft out of that space. They have LaGuardia at 1,100 feet above them. They have Newark Airport to the right. Too much congestion, too many airplanes.

Chetry:In the months after 9/11 they talked about permanently restricting that airspace and there was a big lobby to open that back up again. It's lucrative, I'm sure, for the sightseeing helicopter companies that do that, but also, it's a pleasure for general aviation. How do you fight against that?

Goldfarb: Well, the small plane lobby is as tough as the gun lobby and at FAA they’re constantly fighting between the rights of the larger aircraft. There was a saying that we don’t have bicycles on the interstate, we don't need small planes in the busiest airspace in the world. So that's a tough battle, but make no mistake: FAA has the authority today to close down that airspace and to keep those aircraft out of there, and I think the public would appreciate that to help reduce some of that congestion.

Chetry: A number of local officials gathered yesterday. They were right there with the Hudson River behind them and they were weighing in, different officials calling for different things. I want to run by some of the regulations or suggestions and I want you to tell me just how feasible it would be and whether or not it would make sense. One of the recommendations was to split the airspace, reserve the lower altitudes for the helicopters and slightly higher altitudes for the fixed-wing private planes. Would that be something that could work?

Goldfarb: Bad idea. Air traffic controllers would be very unhappy with that. It makes an already complex airspace even that more difficult. And it also affects weather so you're giving a smaller corridor for small planes and helicopters who have to occasionally deal with bad weather. So that idea is a work around. It doesn't get to the heart of the issue.

Chetry: Another suggestion was to limit the number of hours, perhaps, that either planes or helicopters could be in the air. Would that work?

Goldfarb: It would reduce it somewhat. But we have another problem with the helicopter industry. NTSB has made 16 recommendations since 2002 about the problems of the higher risk that you face when you get on those tourist helicopters. They're largely unregulated. The pilots fly longer hours. In general, they have less experience. Although this pilot, I believe, had quite a bit of experience. So we have a situation where once again these are on the margin of reforms. They need to just take this problem head-on and do it and do it quickly. And I believe a couple months from now, Kiran, they will. But why wait?

Chetry: What is your suggestion then for the FAA?

Goldfarb: To issue an emergency or an immediate rule, restricting that airspace, to work with the Board to find out the cause of this crash. But essentially, in that narrow canyon above the Hudson, small aircraft – like on the East River, they're not allowed – ought not to be allowed to fly. And let them yell and scream about it, but I think public safety would be improved.

Chetry: Also, given your experience, if you were a tourist or had some friends coming into town and they said "hey, I want to take one of these sightseeing helicopter tours over the Hudson," what would you say?

Goldfarb: Well, I get very nervous. I've flown a lot of helicopters back in my career, but I would say no. There's a 50% greater fatality rate on what’s called on-demand aircraft. Those are primarily sightseeing helicopters around the country. They're unregulated. 60% of them are over 20-years-old. There's no requirement to look at the older aircraft from a maintenance standpoint. It's just not where it ought to be. And the board itself has been upset about this and the inspector general just released a report 30-days-ago admonishing the FAA for dragging its heels once again on helicopter safety. So I would say take the Circle Line ... or stay on the ground.

Filed under: Transportation
soundoff (One Response)
  1. r deshaies

    I find it funny that the news media in general didn't mention the fatal death of 8 people that occured in that California police chase.

    How many fatal auto accident were there the same day throughout New York.

    How many mid aircolision have there been over the Hudson?

    There is always agroup that seek to ground airplanes at any cost.

    There was a proposal to ground all genral aviation aircraft in the Boston controled airspace.

    Yet we let tractor trailers carrrying 40,000 lbs through the tunnels every day.

    Most general aviation aircraft can carry about 800 lbs of weight including fuel, which can do more harm 800lb of 40,000.

    i've flown the corridor at least 10 times day and night and have never had a near miss.

    Let's look at the statistics and make a rational judgement.

    The whole US fleet of all types aof airplanes are old.

    August 12, 2009 at 9:46 am |