Enabler of Industry Profits or the Public’s Safety

The man in charge of safety at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is going to retire. The woman who is going to replace him thinks safety is just fine.

There is something deeply troubling about this picture.

FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, Nicholas Sabatini, will retire on 3 January 2009 after 30 years with the agency. He was reportedly in line to move up and become the new acting administrator on 20 January.

According to a news account, Sabatini’s departure results from his organization being “criticized recently for what some U.S. lawmakers said were too-close relationships between regulators and airlines, an accusation spelled out in Congressional hearings in April over airworthiness directive abuses by Southwest Airlines.”

Would that this were the only lapse.

Let’s sum up his real legacy:

  • Pouring millions of dollars into the Air Transport Oversight System (ATOS), which enabled airlines to monitor their own compliance and put shackles on FAA safety inspectors (who were consigned to looking at computer print-out’s rather than expending shoe leather getting out and looking at aircraft on the line).
  • Implementing the Customer Service Initiative (CSI) program that specified the airlines and airplane manufacturers as the FAA’s valued customers – not the flying public. Six months after this cozy program was first criticized in Congress, Sabatini was questioned about the CSI in a recent Congressional hearing, where he confessed that the wording of CSI had not been changed. This prompted Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to vow a legislative directive changing the CSI.
  • The dangerous precedent of allowing the Eclipse EA-500 very light jet to be approved and into the marketplace with IOU tags hanging all over it – things that were to be fixed after the date of certification. The aircraft were to remain under the control of the manufacturer, not customers, and this proved not to be the case.
  • “Leadership” that allowed air carrier maintenance outsourcing to flourish uncontrollably, while at the same time the FAA’s capability to inspect these facilities deteriorated into non-existence. Here’s what the Department of Transportation Inspector General (DOT/IG) had to say, in a 30 September audit of outsourced maintenance:

 “[The] FAA could not effectively target its inspection resources to those repair stations with the highest volume of repairs, which caused deficiencies at repair stations to go undetected or reoccur and prevented inspectors from obtaining sufficient data to perform comprehensive risk assessments.”

In simplest terms, a grade of D.

Imagine the DOT/IG’s conclusion printed on a card placed in every airliner seat-back and its impression on the confidence of the flying public.

  • Failure of the FAA to act on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) “Most Wanted” list of safety recommendations. The six NTSB recommendations pertaining to air travel, which have languished for years, include such needed changes as improving runway safety, reducing the dangers to aircraft flying in icing conditions, and reducing accidents and incidents caused by human fatigue.

 One could go on and on and on about the weakness of the FAA’s safety programs under Sabatini’s watch and the general dereliction of aggressive action to correct them.

His departure could have set the stage for reform. Nope. Acting Administrator Bobby Sturgell appointed Peggy Gilligan to replace Sabatini. She’s currently the deputy associate administrator for aviation safety – in other words, Sabatini’s #2.

She thinks the state of aviation safety is just fine. At a recent symposium of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), she had the temerity to suggest aviation safety is so good, and getting better, that the plaintiff’s bar (i.e., aviation lawyers) will be put out of business.

The arrogance is stunning, not to mention the capacity for self-delusion (the two go hand-in-hand, I suppose).

At various hearings of the Aviation Subcommittee, Congress has heard compelling testimony from many FAA officials at regional offices about the agency’s shortcomings and what needs to be done to correct them. One of these courageous mid-level officials could be elevated by the incoming Obama administration to the position of associate administrator for safety. That would send a compelling message: there’s reward for doing the right thing, and a clean sweep is necessary to restore confidence that the FAA is guarantor of the flying public’s safety, not enabler of the airlines’ and manufacturers’ profits.