HOUSTON, Sept. 14 -- Helicopter flights to offshore rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico resumed Thursday under stringent new rules that are overloading the Federal Aviation Administration and slowing industry operations.
Grounded by the nationwide federal no-fly ban following the terrorist attacks Tuesday in New York and Washington, DC, Gulf Coast helicopter contractors resumed offshore flights about 10 a.m. Thursday under new requirements that pilots file flight plans for each mission with FAA. Pilots previously filed flight plans only within their corporate offices.
When they file their new flight plans, pilots also must obtain and enter a "discrete" transponder code for each craft on each flight to identify it on FAA radar during that flight.
They then have a 30-minute window in which to get airborne. Aircraft not displaying the proper code soon will be subjected to a "fly-by" by US military fighters operating along the Gulf Coast, pilots said.
"FAA officials started out requiring that we get a new transponder code for each leg of the flight. Every time we set an aircraft down on an offshore platform, we were supposed to call in first for a new code before we could take off again," said an executive with one of the three biggest offshore helicopter companies.
"But they quickly found out that wasn't going to work, because they were getting more calls than they could handle," said the source.
He said transponder codes previously were issued to a helicopter company for the use of all of its aircraft. "If for some reason an aircraft wasn't showing the code, if the transponder was turned off or something, the fighters would fly by and give it a look," he said.
The industry executive said he doubts the FAA can long maintain its new safety procedure.
"The problem is that the federal government has no concept of the volume of air traffic there is out in the gulf. They should know, but they don't," he said.
The helicopter companies don't track their business by the number of stops or even the number of trips offshore, but by the number of hours of flying time. That can run into hundreds of hours per day for the 550 helicopters operating up to 200 miles off the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
Some helicopters may make frequent short hops to rigs, platforms, service vessels, and tankers operating relatively close to shore on the Outer Continental Shelf. Others make longer flights to the most distant deepwater rigs.
"The FAA just doesn't have the people and the wherewithal to handle that volume of air traffic in this manner," said the industry executive. "All 550 helicopters want to take off at dawn, and they've got only two or three lines to call in to get your transponder codes."
An official at one FAA flight service center on the Gulf Coast told OGJ Online that his section was "barely coping" with offshore flights Thursday afternoon. "We just don't have enough phone lines. There's a lot of traffic out there in the gulf," he said.
"Hopefully, all of this will be over soon," the FAA employee said. "A couple of more days like this and we'll all just quit."
The industry executive said the new FAA procedure would be even more overloaded if the tropical depression in the eastern Gulf of Mexico develops into a hurricane, threatening hundreds of offshore facilities in the central or western gulf.
The helicopter fleet then would be making even more flights to evacuate crews in the path of the storm. "FAA said they would give us permission to fly then," the executive said.
Meanwhile, drilling contractors and offshore operators said they've managed to cope with the short ban on gulf flights. "A lot of our people just stayed over and worked longer shifts," said a drilling company executive.