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Preventing the Unintended Safety Consequences of Public Policy

Aug 25, 2014

Listen to an NBAA Flight Plan podcast on the role public policy can play in safety. This is the seventh podcast in a series about NBAA’s 2014 Top Safety Focus areas.

The government regulates the National Airspace System (NAS) with the intent of promoting safety, but what happens when the regulations themselves might adversely impact safety? NBAA’s Safety Committee has named public policy as one of its top Safety Focus Areas to bring attention to the unintended consequences legislative and regulatory actions may have on business aviation safety.

“The people with NBAA’s Member Companies are totally focused on safety,” said NBAA Vice President, government Affairs Dick Doubrava. “We don’t want to see programs that might unintentionally encourage people to act against safety – say, in the interest of saving money.”

For instance, levying a user fee on every aircraft filing an IFR flight plan could encourage some operators to save money by flying VFR instead, thus degrading the margin of safety.

Another example: sequestration. When last year’s budget battle between Congress and President Obama shut down all but the most essential federal government services, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) planned to cut funding for approximately 170 contractor-operated air traffic control towers across the country. NBAA, along with other aviation advocates, convinced members of Congress that this was unwise, and the plan was subsequently scrapped.

But unintended consequences are by no means the exclusive domain of the federal government.

“During our 2013 risk assessment held in Atlanta, our host had to miss the first day’s meetings because he was testifying before the Fulton, GA County Commission, telling them why it would be a really bad idea to build a landfill just a couple of miles off the departure end of the runway at Fulton County Airport-Brown Field,” said NBAA Safety Committee Chairman Eric Barfield, who noted that landfills often attract birds and other wildlife, which can come into conflict with aircraft. “In the end, that landfill item was moved off the agenda, so being proactive and remaining engaged can solve issues of legislation with unintended safety consequences.”

That sort of engagement is the key to resolving safety issues that arise from either legislation or regulation, and Barfield said vigilance is the key to battling them.

“What happens is, in the midst of methodical regulatory processes, rules and regulations come out, and we often don’t wake up to the consequences until the rule is almost in place. When someone talks about a rule that will come out in 2017, we often don’t think about it – it’s just too far out. We’re having enough trouble managing issues that are occurring in 2014,” said Barfield.

He suggested operators engage with lawmakers and regulators on a regular basis, getting to know them when there is no pressing issue at hand.

“When you have that type of interaction and familiarity, then when an issue comes along, you have a much stronger voice.”