U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, spoke with the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) this week about her ongoing concerns regarding regulations for shipping oxygen by air.
Federal safety measures instituted following the 1996 ValuJet crash in Florida require that hazardous material canisters shipped aboard aircraft be enclosed in specialized, fire retardant cases. Due to the size, weight and expense of the cases, many Alaskan air carriers are unable to comply with the regulations. As a result, the FAA and the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have approved special permits with altered safety provisions to assist some of the air carriers operating in Alaska.
"I have multiple concerns with the special permits process that the FAA and the PHMSA are currently employing," Murkowski told FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt during a meeting in her Senate office on Tuesday.
"Alaska is different than the Lower 48. We can't place these canisters on trucks and drive them to the bush. Transportation by aircraft is the only way to sustain many of these rural communities. I'm also concerned with what appears to be a significant disparity in the way the special permit provisions are being applied among the different carriers who have applied for the exemptions."
While the safety of the aircraft, crew and passengers is always paramount, many Alaskan communities rely on the shipment and receipt of oxygen for their medical, veterinary and construction needs. "Bottom line is that the air carriers and the Alaskan communities will do whatever it takes to ensure their survivability, and I want to make sure that the carriers and the FAA work together to ensure that the special permits are consistent for all carriers," Murkowski said.
Administrator Babbitt agreed to review all of the permits that have been issued to Alaskan carriers to ensure that there is no disparity or irregularities among similar carriers. Babbitt also agreed to send a follow-up letter to Murkowski detailing the special permit requirements needed to ensure that safety protocols are met to allow passenger-carrying aircraft to ship oxygen when a cargo-only carrier is unavailable.