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Little progress on safety since Hudson River air crash

Airline passengers wait to board a ferry to

Airline passengers wait to board a ferry to be rescued on the wings of a US Airways Airbus 320 jetliner that safely ditched in the frigid waters of the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. All 155 people on board survived. Credit: AP File

Fame, book deals, documentaries and presidential handshakes have been in the offing in the year since US Airways Flight 1549 splashed down in the Hudson River, all 150 passengers and five crew members surviving.

But 12 months after the emergency water landing, many safety issues identified by crash investigators and during congressional hearings remain unsettled. And some of the technology that could have prevented the need for the crash-landing is years away from fruition.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the crash, and its final report could be six months from completion, spokesman Peter Knudson said. "They're in the final stages," Knudson said of the board.

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The Federal Aviation Administration is evaluating one change the NTSB has recommended - a rule to allow air traffic controllers to notify other planes of an emergency. Currently, pilots themselves have to dial in an emergency code to alert controllers, but the NTSB noted that Flight 1549's dire circumstances showed pilots may not have time to do that.

Here are four safety issues that remain unsettled:


FAA rules on ditching

Rules on emergency water landings and crew training for such situations could be broader and more stringent, according to the NTSB, which is examining airline training policies as part of its investigation.

Current regulations, which have evolved over the past 50 years, call for pilots to be familiar with protocols for "ditching," and the procedures must be included in aircraft manual checklists. Flight attendants are required to be familiar with flotation devices and survival equipment.

But pilots are not now required to demonstrate ditching skills in a flight simulator. Ditching training is usually covered during classroom work in "ground school."

As for flight attendants, they are required to train for ditching when working with airlines that have extended over-water flights. Flight 1549 was an overland flight.


Bird strike database

Reporting of bird strikes to the FAA's National Wildlife Strike Database remains voluntary, and some critics, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), say reporting should be mandatory.

The database, compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides a place for pilots, aircraft maintenance workers and airport grounds-keepers to report incidents of wildlife conflicts with aviation. Most common are birds, but wildlife such as deer can find their way onto airport runways.

Estimates suggest that the database captures about 20 percent of bird strikes, although publicity since Flight 1549 has sparked an uptick in reporting, said Mike Beiger, national coordinator for the airport wildlife hazards program at the Agriculture Department.

"The biggest reason we feel for the numbers going up is more awareness," said Beiger, who estimated that bird-strike reports could be 30 percent to 40 percent higher in 2009 than they were in 2008.

Schumer, who in May proposed legislation to make reporting of bird strikes mandatory, said Wednesday, "For too many years, information regarding bird strikes has been swept under the rug. My legislation would put a stop to it."


Bird ingestion standards

NTSB officials identified tougher bird-ingestion standards for jet engines as a possible reform.

Flight 1549 was an Airbus A320, and standards for those engines say they each should be able to withstand contact with a single 4-pound bird, or a flock of seven 1.5-pound birds.

After a strike, the engines have to continue to produce thrust, according to the manufacturer's standard. However, as Flight 1549 showed, large birds like Canada geese can rob engines of sufficient thrust to stay aloft. Canada geese can average 5.8 to 10.7 pounds, and so-called "resident birds" that do not migrate can grow even larger.

Flight 1549's power plants, two CFM56-5B/P turbofan engines, stopped producing enough thrust to keep the plane in the air.

The research that produced the FAA's current bird-ingestion standards is at least 10 years old, officials with the Air Line Pilots Association testified at congressional hearings after Flight 1549's crash.


Avian radar

Ground-based radar systems designed to detect flocking birds near airports are not the immediate solution to keeping planes and flocking birds out of each other's way, experts say.

But avian radar is not yet reliable enough for controllers to use to direct air traffic, said Michael O'Donnell, the FAA's director of airport safety and standards.

Ground-based radar sees everything - trees, birds and even bugs. The trouble lies in radar sorting out what human beings in a plane or control tower need to know, said Edwin E. Herricks of the Center of Excellence for Airport Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is evaluating private avian radar systems for the FAA.

"If there's any message after 1549, it's that lots of companies have identified that there may be a real market," Herricks said. "But it's not simple."

O'Donnell said avian radar technology "is very good, and we can see a lot. But it has to be information that we can pass on to somebody who can do something about it."

The Center of Excellence for Airport Technology has studied avian radar for the FAA at airports across the country, including Kennedy Airport. But "after several years, we still don't know the full capabilities, or limitations, of avian radar," a center report found. "Radar is not the magic solution."

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