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NTSB Holds Hearing Regarding Part 91 Revenue Passenger-Carrying Operations

March 25, 2021 – On Tuesday, the NTSB held a hearing regarding a new report on the safety of Part 91 revenue passenger-carrying operations. These operations include sightseeing tours in airplanes, balloons, helicopters, gliders, skydiving flights, and rides in historic aircraft. The latter includes flights under the Living History Flight Experience (LHFE) exemption program, which allows operators of former military aircraft certificated in the Experimental Exhibition and Limited categories to provide flights to the public for compensation or hire on a case-by-case basis. EAA operates its B-17 and B-25 under the LHFE program.

The hearing focused on several recent high-profile fatal accidents, including the 2016 crash of a commercial hot air balloon in Lockhart, Texas, the 2019 loss of a skydiving flight on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, and the B-17 Nine-O-Nine accident in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, that same year, among others. NTSB board members expressed concerns about FAA oversight in these operations and public understanding of the differences between the regulations governing Part 91 flights versus Part 135 and Part 121 operations. They also pointed to alleged loopholes in regulations that allow certain operations to take place, such as conducting ride experience flights under rules governing flight instruction and aerial photography.

The report made six new recommendations to the FAA, including creating new rules and guidance to uniformly govern passenger-carrying flights. EAA notes that most of these recommendations would mandate best practices that many ride providers already implement. In fact, the LHFE program already requires operators to adopt practices more stringent than these safety recommendations.

The more troubling recommendation was one originally made in the wake of the 2018 crash of a tour helicopter in New York's East River. It would require all passenger flights for compensation or hire to take place under Part 135. While the requirements of programs such as LHFE are substantially similar to Part 135, in that operators must have approved maintenance practices, drug and alcohol testing, etc,. such a "one size fits all" solution to a far more complex safety problem is inappropriate and would significantly hamper the ability of smaller operations to provide flight experiences, a tradition that dates back to the barnstorming days a century ago. The FAA has thus far not acted on this recommendation, but the NTSB continues to press the issue.

The NTSB is an investigative body and it carries no direct regulatory power. Through the course of its investigations it makes recommendations and advocates for their implementation. EAA will continue to work with the FAA, NTSB, and Congress to ensure that GA operations remain safe, affordable, and accessible for all.

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