Will VLJs Impact Airline Safety? Or Just Airline Profits?

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While many in the general and business aviation community have wondered -- more than idly -- whether the anticipated horde of very light jets (VLJs) will result in a rash of accidents as inexperienced pilots get used to them, no one has seriously questioned their impact on the safety of other aircraft operations. Until now. Enter the Air Transport Association of America (ATA) and its Vice President, Operations and Safety, Basil J. Barimo, who testified before the U.S. Senate last month on the all-encompassing topic of "aviation safety." Appearing at the hearing in addition to Barimo was a partial round-up of the usual suspects: FAA Administrator Blakey, DOT Inspector General Ken Mead, John Carr of the National Air Traffic Controller's Association and representatives from other maintenance and repair organizations. (Since the hearing's title was "Aviation Safety," you'd expect other industry segments or operators to be represented. You'd be wrong. But that's probably a good thing.)

Among the questions asked in Barimo's prepared statement [PDF], were:

  • How will the FAA ensure that VLJ pilots, particularly private pilots operating their own (or jointly owned) microjets, obtain and maintain the skills needed to operate safely in commercial airspace?
  • Are current pilot certification standards appropriate for this new generation of aircraft?
  • Are current maintenance standards for privately owned aircraft appropriate for this new generation of aircraft?
  • Will FAA maintenance surveillance programs ensure the safety of these aircraft if owned and operated privately as well as by air taxi operators?
  • Are the second- and third-tier airports where these aircraft are expected to operate fully prepared to respond to a safety incident?
Putting aside the question of where the "commercial airspace" to which Barimo refers begins and ends, some of these are relevant issues. They are issues that VLJ manufacturers like Eclipse and prospective operators like DayJet have tackled and for which they have ready answers. But the real issue confronting the airlines represented by ATA seems to be summed up when Barimo complains that, "The scheduled airline industry contributes 95 percent of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF), and in FY 2006 will pay 82 percent of the total FAA budget. ... The airlines should not subsidize safety oversight of the VLJ sector, including both private use and air taxi operations." Thus was fired one of the opening salvos in the coming fight to reauthorize -- divvy up the "pork" -- the FAA's budget. The existing legislation expires in 2007, and both industry and policy groups are gearing up to do battle. If this statement from ATA is any indication, we'll all need lots of popcorn.