WASHINGTON -- Fatal crashes of small planes and other general aviation aircraft increased slightly this year, yet the National Transportation Safety Board has been scaling back its investigations.
The number of fatal general aviation crashes increased from 337 last year to 347 in the 2005 budget year, which ended Sept. 30. But the NTSB sent investigators to only 245, or 71 percent, of those accidents.
The NTSB, an independent agency that is supposed to investigate all accidents, has steadily reduced its general aviation efforts in the past few years. It sent investigators to 90 percent of the crashes in 2001.
Aviation executives and former NTSB officials say the trend is troubling.
They are concerned the NTSB will fail to spot safety problems because investigators are seeing fewer accidents firsthand. They say the NTSB is becoming too reliant on the Federal Aviation Administration, the federal agency that regulates aviation, to do the legwork at crash sites, which raises possible conflicts because the FAA is sometimes blamed for accidents.
But NTSB officials say they are trying to focus on high-profile crashes and those that could yield the biggest safety lessons.
"I'm trying to focus the limited resources that we have on getting more bang for the buck in terms of safety payback," said Jeff Guzzetti, who oversees the NTSB's general aviation investigations.
General aviation, which includes all aircraft except those used by airlines and the government, accounts for the vast majority of the nation's 600 aviation deaths each year. Former NTSB officials and aircraft manufacturers say the safety agency is making a mistake by cutting back for a sector with so many fatalities.
"This area of aviation has not received the attention it deserves," said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.
Jack Pelton, president of Cessna, said the NTSB needs to investigate all general aviation crashes to spot trends. "A big part of safety is what you accumulate over time," he said. "You can't just pick a high-profile accident and show up. (Aviation) is very complex."
Pelton said the NTSB was too focused on crashes that attract lots of publicity.
"The industry perception is that only high-profile accidents get attention," Pelton said. "We have a responsibility to investigate all accidents."
Guzzetti said the NTSB is focusing more on accidents that involve charter planes, air ambulance services and corporate aircraft. He said the safety board also is emphasizing crashes that involve trends, such as icing that affects one type of plane.
The NTSB is putting less emphasis on crashes that involve pilots on pleasure flights, Guzzetti said, especially when the safety board can quickly determine the basic facts of the accident.
Guzzetti said the change is because of priorities, not budget cuts.
The agency has roughly the same number of investigators it had five years ago. But officials want to put more emphasis on emerging trends and less on simple accidents that don't justify an on-scene investigator.
"We are trying to become more streamlined," he said. "For the real simple fender benders involving no injuries, we're starting to implement a one-page accident report."
By law, the NTSB is required to investigate all civil aviation accidents, but the agency has long relied on the FAA to do the field work at lower-profile crashes, especially when there are no fatalities. FAA investigators provide details about the crash and the NTSB uses that information to determine the probable cause.