How the FAA is Increasing Aviation Safety in a State Like No Other: Alaska

By Shelly Larson, FAA Acting Regional Administrator for the Alaskan Region

A Cessna Stationair rests on the lake at Port Alsworth, Alaska.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that when many Alaskans go to the grocery store, they’re actually going to the local airport.

In a state where more than 80 percent of communities are accessible only by air, aviation is the default daily backbone of commerce, including the delivery of food and life-saving supplies, inter-city and inter-village transportation, emergency medical evacuations, and daily commuting.

But the harsh terrain and unforgiving weather mean that Alaska has its own safety challenges.

It’s why Alaska aviation safety has always been — and remains — one of our top priorities for the FAA. In fact, because of its harsh environment, Alaska is a pathfinder for breakthrough innovations like weather cameras that give Alaska pilots a view of near-real-time conditions, and ADS-B, a surveillance system that we now use throughout the United States. ADS-B and its associated cockpit displays alert pilots to the presence of other aircraft, terrain and weather conditions along their planned routes. The FAA first deployed ADS-B in Alaska under the Capstone project.

The work is never done, though. As FAA Administrator Steve Dickson likes to say, safety is journey, not a destination. We have to continuously monitor and invest in safety. That’s why we launched the FAA Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative, or FAASI, last October. FAASI is a sweeping examination of safety issues specific to the challenges of flying in Alaska. You can read the interim report here.

At an Alaska Safety Town Hall we held in October 2020, Administrator Dickson summed up the situation succinctly: “While the types of accidents we see in Alaska mirror what we see elsewhere, the weather, terrain, and the pressing need for this crucial mode of transportation combine to amplify the threats.”

Through the FAASI, we’re taking a fresh look at those threats, and our plans to solve Alaska-specific safety issues. In particular, we’re focusing on topics related to environment, the Alaskan fleet, communications, navigation, surveillance, and operations safety.

We’re continually evolving our safety oversight and developing regulatory and education initiatives to reduce the risks related to midair collisions, impacting terrain, runway errors and other threats. We maintain close ties to all operators, through correspondence and regular safety meetings. We also continue work with our FAA Safety Team (FAAST) and the government and industry General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) to deliver safety enhancements that benefit Alaskan aviators as well as those outside of Alaska.

The FAA is always on the lookout for innovations that can help. Right now, we’re investigating a technology that we call VWOS, the Visual Weather Observation System. VWOS uses the existing weather camera network in Alaska by providing estimated visibility and other information. The additional weather information, combined with provisions in the FAA 2018 Reauthorization bill, could enable commercial operators to fly instrument approaches into more than 100 additional Alaska airports.

In the Lower 48, you associate flying with airports; In Alaska, you have to consider “landing areas”. In fact, the state has twice as many “landing areas” as public use airports. Often it’s a remote unpaved or gravel airstrip in the middle of the wilderness or an isolated body of water. For the airports themselves, the FAA invests in safety improvements through the Airport Improvement Program. Since 2010, we’ve dedicated more than $2 billion in grants to the state.

The takeaway is that we understand the challenges, but we also appreciate Alaska’s unique promise, the character of the state, its aviators, and the need for flexibility.

This has been the case ever since Carl Ben Eielson started the state’s first commercial air mail service nearly 100 years ago. And as we have for nearly a century, the FAA continues to work to improve safety by partnering with the various stakeholders. We solve problems by identifying the safety risk areas and potential solutions, then putting the right technologies, regulations, guidance and education initiatives in place.

And since safety is a journey, not a destination, we are always committed to doing more.

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