Nenana Municipal Airport

The Nenana Municipal Airport includes a paved 4,600 foot runway, a ski strip and a float pond.

The Federal Aviation Administration recommended Thursday that weather observation systems, known as AWOS, be installed at all airports in Alaska, where many remote communities can only be reached by plane.

The FAA released the Alaska Safety Initiative report, which identified aviation challenges in Alaska as well as proposals to improve flight safety.

“Today’s action by the FAA is a step forward in addressing Alaska’s unique place in aviation safety,’’ said Jennifer L. Homendy, who chairs the National Transportation Safety Board.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, who has experience as an Alaska pilot, called the Alaska Safety Initiative report a blueprint for Congress, as he and Alaska’s two senators advocate for resources that support aviation safety.

“I will be there for you,” Young told FAA officials at the press event. “You came forth with good suggestions for Congress. Let’s keep safe.”

He noted that Alaska depends on air travel for many essential services, unlike the Lower 48, inter-connected by vast highway systems.

Alaska, by contrast, is linked by a network of more than 400 public airports, seaplane bases and rural landing areas that are private, public or military.

Young suggested that additional training may be necessary for private pilots who need more experience flying in Alaska’s unique environment.

Air safety challenges in Alaska

From pilots and carriers to trade associations and airport operators, stakeholders worked with the FAA on the report, which examines safety challenges in Alaska, where more than 80% of communities are only accessible by air.

Some of the stakeholders spoke at Thursday's press event, including from the Alaska International Airport System, Alaska Airmen's Association and ConocoPhillips Alaska, which uses planes to travel to the North Slope.

“Alaska depends on aviation more than any other state, and we are committed to doing everything possible to make flying safer,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. “We teamed up with the flying community and together developed this comprehensive blueprint for our safety work going forward.”

In fiscal 2021, the FAA provided more than $250 million in grants to Alaska airports, which provide a vital role in supplying remote and rural communities with food, medicine and services that support sustainability.

The FAA safety report issued Thursday offered the following recommendations:

• Install more automated weather observing systems (AWOS) and prioritize airports where the systems could have the most safety benefit.

• Emphasize development of new weather monitoring technology that uses sensors and may be deployed with efficiency at more airports.

• Expand satellite-based air traffic control to more areas.

• Implement a comprehensive airspace navigation strategy for Alaska that includes lower-altitude flight routes and improves GPS backup systems.

• Continue to improve aeronautical charts with mountain pass information.

FAA leaders with oversight in Alaska said they expect to have a plan and estimates early next year on the funding needed to implement the recommendations. The agency will seek stakeholder feedback. Enhancing Alaska’s aviation infrastructure could start by next summer.

The FAA said it would immediately address outstanding requests by Alaska airports for AWOS by tapping funds from the agency’s Airport Improvement Program.

Overall, the report underscored an urgent need to increase weather data reporting and forecasting to improve aviation safety.

Murkowski: Report is a ‘milestone’

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the report as long overdue. She described it as a “milestone” for addressing flight safety in Alaska, which has had a number of small plane crashes.

“For too long, Alaska has led the U.S. in aviation accident rates,” said Murkowski, in a recorded speech broadcast at Thursday’s press event. “Many of these accidents could have been prevented.”

Calling for a “well-funded aviation system that is not an afterthought,” U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a recorded speech that he has been “pressing the FAA on this initiative for a long time.”

“There are tangible benefits to expanding safety assets and safety infrastructure that are important to all Alaskans,” Sullivan said.

Contact Linda F. Hersey at 907-459-7575 or at lhersey@newsminer.com. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.

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