Culture clash strains FAA/airline oversight


The US Federal Aviation Administration is being buffeted by growing pains related to its evolution from a forensic to a prognostic aviation safety agency, increasingly fuelled by voluntarily submitted data from airlines rather than inspectors on the floor.

All 118 airlines in the USA are participants in the FAA’s airline transport oversight system (ATOS), which prioritises inspector work assignments using assessment tools that rely in part on voluntary reporting mechanisms by the airlines.

“The days of going out and randomly touching an airplane and hoping to find something are long, long gone,” said FAA associate administrator for safety, Nicholas Sabatini, at a press conference last week on the eve of a contentious congressional hearing called “Critical lapses in FAA’s safety oversight of airlines”.

Key revelations in the 3 April hearing at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee included apparent rule and ethics violations by an FAA employee at the agency’s Southwest Certificate Management Office (CMO), the facility charged with overseeing Southwest Airlines.

Issues centred around a “cosy” relationship between the FAA supervisory principal maintenance inspector (SPMI) for Southwest and carrier’s manager of regulatory compliance, a former FAA employee who went to work directly for Southwest in 2006 after resigning from his government job.

Two whistleblowers had raised issues last year about Southwest’s non-compliance with two airworthiness directives – inspections for cracks in the aircraft’s fuselage and inspections of a backup rudder power control unit – both critical to flight safety.

Alerted to the problem, the SPMI in both cases handled the situation by closing the case and encouraging Southwest to file voluntary disclosure reports to the FAA rather than opening an investigation into the matter, a move that allowed Southwest to avoid a potential fine.

The airline then continued to fly the aircraft in revenue service for thousands of flights before the inspections were carried out, in violation of FAA rules.

Southwest later grounded dozens of aircraft to verify AD compliance after an internal review, as have other carriers with different fleets, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Air Lines.

“I think they see the FAA waking up after this [Southwest ADs] incident last year,” said Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel at the House hearing.

“FAA properly recognises that AD compliance is a vulnerability. My count stands at 565 aircraft that have been grounded.”

The FAA last week launched a five-point plan intended to fix the AD oversight problem. Included is a restriction that will prevent FAA inspectors from taking a job with the airline they are overseeing for at least two years after leaving the federal government.

By the end of April, the FAA says it will deploy a safety issues reporting system that will give employees an additional mechanism to raise safety concerns to management.

Other initiatives include new guidance for “awareness and sensitivity” to voluntary disclosure reports, a “plain language” review of ADs and an expansion of a database that will link safety issue reports with other safety databases.

The agency last week revealed that an initial audit of AD compliance, launched after media reports about the Southwest groundings, showed that 99% of the ADs reviewed – 10 for each aircraft type at each of the 118 carriers – had been complied with.

Phase two of the inspection program, which will have inspector look at 10% of all ADs that apply to each airline is set to be complete on 30 June, said Sabatini, who added that he is confident the results of the next round of audits to be completed in June will be “similar.”

Scovel’s recommendations, that were presented at the hearing, include establishing an independent organisation to investigate “safety issues identified by its employees”, periodically rotating supervisory inspectors into other jobs to reduce the potential for excessively close ties to the airlines, implementing a process for a secondary review of airline self-disclosures before they are accepted or closed and developing a national review team that conducts periodic reviews of the FAA’s oversight functions.

Regarding the proper mix of self-reporting programmes and inspectors on the ground, Scovell said: “I don’t think the FAA has found the right formula yet.

Properly used, ATOS has the potential to target inspectors to the areas of greatest need, then get them to the shop floor.”

Scovell said the Office of the Inspector General first audited the ATOS programme in 2002, and that a recommendation to set up a programme for nationwide oversight for ATOS has not been implemented at the FAA.

Exacerbating the oversight problem, according to lawmakers, is a culture change at the FAA that took place in 2003, promoted by then administrator Marion Blakey.

Called the FAA “Customer Service Initiative”, the programme was an attempt in part to make the FAA more consistent in terms of its interface with “customers”, including the public, airframers and airlines.

Specifically, the initiative gave customers the right to ask for a review of any decision by an inspector.

During testimony at the hearing, it came to light that Southwest at one point called the FAA to request the removal of a whistleblower inspector who had alerted management of AD non-compliance.

The inspector was subsequently removed from the job. “That was an abuse of what the customer service initiative was meant to be,” said Sabatini, adding that the agency would “recalibrate” its internal guidance referring to airlines as “customers”.