December 8, 2020
Requested by Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand
Weaknesses in FAA’s Supplemental Passenger Restraint System Authorization Process Hinder Improvements to Open-Door Helicopter Operations
What We Looked At
On March 11, 2018, a fatal Liberty Helicopters crash in New York, NY took the lives of five passengers who were trapped in their supplemental passenger restraints when the open-door helicopter partially submerged in the East River. In response, Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand requested that we—in consultation with NTSB—review FAA’s oversight of helicopter air tours and how FAA approved the supplemental restraint system used during the tragic crash. Our objectives were to assess FAA’s processes for (1) review and approval of supplemental restraints for open-door helicopter operations and (2) oversight of company use of supplemental restraints.
What We Found
FAA did not maintain effective and consistent oversight of open-door helicopter operations to maintain the safety of air tour passengers. FAA lacks an effective process to review, authorize, and ensure the safe use of supplemental restraints for open-door helicopter operations; and FAA inspectors lack sufficient guidance to oversee operator use of supplemental passenger restraints. FAA has made efforts to issue guidance to achieve prompt operator compliance and eliminate safety risks by developing a special authorization for supplemental passenger restraint systems. However, that authorization process is still evolving and important risk information has been overlooked. Also, FAA does not currently provide the guidance inspectors need to ensure operators are using and maintaining the supplemental restraints the Agency has authorized. Overall, we found that FAA has the opportunity to improve its authorization process and oversight regarding supplemental passenger restraint use and increase the safety of helicopter air tour passengers.
FAA concurred with four of our five recommendations to improve the effectiveness of its supplemental passenger restraint authorization process, providing appropriate actions and completion dates. FAA partially concurred with recommendation 3 and did not provide an alternative action or completion date. We ask the Agency to reconsider its response to this recommendation and provide us with an alternative action and anticipated completion date.