NTSB suggests weighing airline passengers
to ensure safety
WASHINGTON, D.C. Air travel would be safer if airlines
weighed their passengers from time to time to make sure they
know how much weight their planes are carrying, the National
Transportation Safety Board says.
Following its investigation into a commuter plane crash last
year in North Carolina, the NTSB said on Thursday that airlines
should at least periodically make passengers step on a scale.
The safety board also recommended the Federal Aviation Administration
require improvements to training, oversight and procedures
for maintenance personnel.
The crash of US Airways Express Flight 5481 at Charlotte-Douglas
Airport killed 21 people, the deadliest U.S. aviation accident
in nearly 2 1/2 years.
The Beech 1900, operated by Air Midwest, was virtually uncontrollable
because of two fatal mistakes, the safety board concluded.
First, the airline's guidelines for estimating the weight
of passengers and baggage were inaccurate. The pilots, therefore,
didn't realize the plane's rear section was too heavy.
Second, mechanics had improperly rigged cables connected
to the elevator, the tail flap that controls the up-and-down
direction of the aircraft's nose. The errors meant the elevator's
downward motion was restricted to half its normal range, according
to the NTSB.
Without a fully maneuverable elevator, the pilots couldn't
force the nose of the plane down to compensate for its heavy
tail, investigators said.
As a result, the plane pitched sharply upward just seconds
after takeoff for Greer, S.C., then fell from the sky.
Soon afterward, the FAA ordered airlines to weigh some of
their passengers to determine the accuracy of current guidelines
- for example, adults in winter were calculated to weigh 185
pounds on average.
The survey showed what many suspected: Passengers and their
bags had gotten heavier. The FAA issued temporary guidelines
adding up to 10 pounds to its estimate for passengers and
5 pounds to checked luggage.
The NTSB said those guidelines don't go far enough. The board
recommended the FAA require airlines operating planes with
10 or more seats to weigh passengers periodically to determine
when they might be heavier - for example, in December when
they wear heavy coats and carry presents.
The FAA is working on that. Since June, a committee has been
examining the average weights of passengers and baggage and
how they vary according to season or geography.
Debby McElroy, Regional Airline Association president, said
her group is working with the FAA on the weight and balance
issues identified by the NTSB.
"We agree that further study is necessary, to ensure
that air carrier weight and balance programs provide the highest
level of safety," McElroy said.
The committee is expected to make recommendations next month.
NTSB investigators also found flaws in the way mechanics
were trained and supervised, how their work was checked and
how Air Midwest controlled the quality of its maintenance.
Those problems led to the improperly rigged elevator cables
on the Charlotte flight.
As part of a series of recommendations on maintenance, the
NTSB said the FAA should require that work on key flight control
systems, including elevator cables, be checked upon completion.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency already is working
on the issues raised by the investigation.
Two Democratic members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure
Committee, James Oberstar of Minnesota and Peter DeFazio of
Oregon, asked the Transportation Department's inspector general
to report on whether outsourced maintenance work affects airline
Air Midwest contracted maintenance to Raytheon Aerospace
(now known as Vertex Aerospace), which hired mechanics from
Structural Modification and Repair Technicians Inc.