The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) raised questions about the safety of commercial charter flights Tuesday in an investigation that blamed pilots, charter companies and the FAA for a February 2005 jet accident in New Jersey.
The NTSB found pilot negligence was the primary cause for the accident that left 14 injured, but a host of contributing factors including lax charter company and FAA oversight, poor crew training and a flawed system for tracking safety compliance were also to blame.
''This was as sloppy an operation as we've seen in a long time,'' said NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker.
The Challenger CL-600 was scheduled to fly a charter flight from Teterboro Airport, outside New York City, to Chicago's Midway Airport with eight passengers aboard. After the pilot aborted the take off, the jet shot off the end of a runway, burst through a fence, struck a car as it rolled through a six-lane highway, and then smashed into a warehouse and burst into flames. The harrowing nature of the incident during morning rush-hour grabbed national headlines.
The NTSB found the pilots did not perform routine pre-flight procedures for balancing the weight distribution between the front and back of the plane. As a result, the plane's center of gravity was shifted too far forward and it could not get off the ground during take off.
Neither the pilot nor the first officer was properly trained to operate a Part 135 charter, as it is known, according to the investigation. Another charter company had fired the pilot eight months earlier for poor performance and the first officer did not have proper medical certification to pilot the flight, according to NTSB investigators.
The NTSB also found the cabin hostess did not follow FAA procedures, which caused glassware to injure passengers during the accident, and the plane's seatbelts were tucked under its seats, so passengers could not strap themselves in. Two passengers were thrown into the aisle during the accident.
NTSB members said the charter company, Fort Lauderdale-based Platinum Jet Management, LLC (PJM), should have caught the problems. PJM was not an FAA certified charter company, but contracted with Alabama-based Darby Aviation to fly under its certification. The arrangement obligated Darby to ensure the plane met safety guidelines and the crew had proper training, but investigators found Darby did not provide adequate oversight. NTSB investigators said ''many hundreds'' of similar agreements are in effect around the country. The complicated nature of the arrangements worried NTSB members.
''We've got lots of operators and lots of planes, but who knows what's going on?'' asked NTSB member Kathryn Higgins.
The FAA has issued new guidelines clarifying the responsibilities of certified commercial charter carriers and the companies that contract to fly under their certification. The guidelines state only approve persons may exercise "operational control" on the certificate holder's behalf, the certificate holder must have adequate controls in place to ensure flights are operated safely, and hands-off management is not an excuse for failing to maintain operation control. The new operation specifications will go into effect on Nov. 30.
The investigation found the FAA "permitted" these management failures to occur because it did not watch the agreement between PJM and Darby close enough.
- In the wake of the findings, the NTSB made a number of recommendations for regulatory changes:
- Provide FAA inspectors and charter carriers with specific guidelines by which a certified charter can demonstrate it is properly meeting safety and crew training standards.
- Review all agreements between FAA certified charter carriers and other jet companies (such as the arrangement between PJM and Darby).
- Require all seatbelts are visible and accessible to passengers.
- Require cabin personnel to take basic safety training.