FAA Refuses to Act of 15-Year-Old Request to Update Manuals on Flying Low on Fuel.

Dec. 24--When an Avianca Airlines plane ran out of fuel and crashed on Long Island in 1990, killing 73, a government board moved to ensure such a tragedy would not reoccur.

The National Transportation Safety Board, seeking to improve flight manuals to help pilots low on fuel, turned to the agency with the power to order change: The Federal Aviation Administration.

The request was denied.

A decade later, planes continue to fall because of fuel failures, and the FAA has yet to adopt the request.

"We feel that the procedures that are in place . . . if they follow that they will never have a problem," Jim Ballough, director of the FAA's Flight Standards Service, said recently.

Yet The Miami Herald found fuel failure in one of every 10 nonfatal U.S. cargo accidents since 2000.

Thirteen years after the Avianca crash, the NTSB safety push resurfaced when a twin-engine cargo plane ditched into the Mississippi River in 2003 after running out of fuel while carrying 155 bags of seat covers, seriously injuring the pilot and copilot for Grand Aire Express.

Investigators cited the pilot's failure to divert to another airport or promptly tell air traffic controllers he was running out of fuel. But key testimony showed the company pushed pilots to fly on low levels of fuel, and that the policy was not to buy fuel from noncontract vendors. The reason: It was pricier.

If the pilot returned to Toledo, the base, with above minimum fuel, "They would get a call . . . reminding them they returned with too much fuel," pilot Saleem Iqbal told the NTSB.

For Grand Aire, "low fuel did not necessarily constitute declaring an emergency," the pilot said.

Iqbal recently filed suit against Grand Aire in Ohio, saying he sustained "debilitating injury" after crashing in a plane "that had been improperly maintained or fueled."

"His seat belt broke, and his face crashed into the front window," said his attorney, Michael Zychowicz. Iqbal, he said, suffered "massive fractures of his face," requiring reconstructive surgery.

Grand Aire has a history of deaths, crashes and fines, yet the FAA said it is cautious before grounding companies "because we almost certainly will be forced to defend our action in court." The company has declined to comment.

The NTSB cited its earlier safety recommendation in the Grand Aire crash report.

After the Avianca crash, the board wanted flight manuals to detail safe fuel practices and protocol. The manuals "should include criteria for when Air Traffic Control must be notified . . . and when emergency handling is required."

The FAA replied that fuel requirements were already spelled out in aviation regulations, so the agency saw no cause to revamp manuals.

"The Board regrets that the FAA does not agree with this recommendation," the NTSB wrote, closing the matter.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

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