The Golden Tombstone Award for the Feds

There is something deeply paradoxical and disconcerting about the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Here is an agency that touts safety as its highest priority, yet its actions are dilatory, incomplete, and reflect a regulatory lassitude that is inexcusable.

Four recent examples certainly suggest this damning indictment.

First, a 29 June 2010 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on airframe and engine icing, dealing primarily with supercooled liquid droplets (SLD) that slap and stick on metal, turning to ice. Note, first of all, that this is a proposed rule, not a final rule. In other words, the FAA is seeking comments, and it could be a year or more before it publishes a final rule.

Following fatal icing accidents at Roselawn and Monroe, the National Transportation Safety Board issued two recommendations to the FAA regarding SLD. Both recommendations languish, the NTSB having characterized the FAA reaction to them as “OPEN – Unacceptable response.” The matters contained in the NPRM are intended to respond to the NTSB, but the “Unacceptable response” characterization will remain until the FAA publishes a final rule sometime a year or two hence.

Publication of the final rule won’t immediately effect one airplane. Lets look at the overall evolution, here, from womb to tomb (an appropriate metaphor given the accusation that the FAA is a “tombstone” agency requiring dead bodies to galvanize safety action). Since the ATR-72 accident at Roselawn, it has taken about 14 years and 8 months to bring the SLD issue to the proposal stage. If codified and effective, say, at the beginning of 2011, and application made for type certification of a transport airplane at that time, the airplane will have up to five years to be certificated to this rule, or until 2016 before the first airplane of the type would enter service. It will take several more years for the fleet to accrue significant exposure, necessary to determine if the rule has the intended effect on the safety of airline operations in icing conditions.

Total elapsed time, approximately 25 years – a quarter of a century – from accident to improvement.

Example 2: an FAA Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) of 6 July 2010. The SAFO basically says that for stall training in the simulator, the old guidance of training the pilot to recover with “minimum altitude loss” is out. It is critically important that the pilot lower the nose (decrease back-pressure on the control yoke or side stick), add power, and increase speed to recover from a stall. Holding altitude or endeavoring to minimize altitude loss (without good cause, such as a ground proximity warning) can be a death sentence.

The SAFO follows Canadian guidance to this effect issued three years ago. And the change to approach to stall recovery was first urged back in 1999. That was 11 years ago. The FAA gets the “golden tombstone” for this belated action. There are a number of fatal accidents that could probably have been avoided had the pilots responded to the stall warning/upset along the lines suggested in this SAFO.

Example 3: an Airworthiness Directive (AD) issued 7 July 2010 regarding in-flight entertainment systems that do not have an ON/OFF switch in the cockpit enabling the crew to cut power in the event of smoke or flames from the system. While a circuit breaker (CB) does enable electrical power to be terminated, CBs are not to be routinely used as switches as this habit decreases the life of the breaker, resulting in failed circuits, smoke or fire.

The AD makes mandatory a number of Boeing Service Bulletins (SBs) on the corrective action for B777 jetliners (readers may recall the control boxes under the seats that control individual monitors; the boxes also reduce foot room).

Following the 1998 fatal crash at Halifax of Swissair flight 111 from a rampaging fire believed to have begun in the location of in-flight entertainment system wiring, Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada investigators were dismayed to discover there was no installed ON/OFF switch for the entertainment system on the accident MD-11 and commented extensively about the hazard in their final report.

An FAA official concedes, “There is nothing in the FARs [Federal Aviation Regulations] prohibiting the use of CBs as switches.”

Here we are, 12 years after the Swissair accident, 7 years after the TSB final report, 4 years after the Boeing SBs, still dealing with in-flight entertainment systems without an ON/OFF switch. Another 5 years is allowed for installation, bringing the time from the Swissair crash to final fix to a total of 17 years.

Example 4: An AD published 13 July 2010 to prevent windshield cracking caused by loose electrical connections in the window heater. We’re not talking of one or two cracks, but wholesale cracking that impedes vision and has showered pilots and instrument panels with jagged pieces of shattered glass.

Cracked windscreen on an American Airlines B757 en route from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, diverted to an emergency landing at West Palm Beach, FL, in 2008.

Cracked windscreen on an American Airlines B757 en route from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, diverted to an emergency landing at West Palm Beach, FL, in 2008.

The FAA recounts 11 reports of smoke and fire from windscreen heaters. The most recent emergency landing resulting from this hazard occurred 16 May 2010 involved a United 757 at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC.

Although replacement of the windscreen and heater controls is an alternative to the AD, which calls for inspection and repair on over 1,000 Boeing airliners, Continental Airlines notes that access to components requiring inspection is “atrocious.” Limited access, coupled to poor “view-ability” turns a simple task into a very difficult one requiring special tooling.

Given the redesign and tooling work necessary to yield a safer windscreen, one would think that replacement of the whole windscreen and associated electrical circuits would be more than justified. It appears that the original design was marginal from an inspection, maintenance and safety standpoint.

The FAA’s mandate to inspect, not replace, seems totally inappropriate given the cost of an emergency landing, or worse.

Note that the four examples cited here occurred within the last month. More examples for the same period could easily be produced. Add up the number of late, incomplete or token safety measures taken within a year and 50-100 such citations could be counted. Tote up the total over 5-10 years; the number of safety deficiencies is simply staggering.

What this reflects is a tolerance at the highest levels in the FAA for a regulatory torpor more seemly for Rip Van Winkle than for an aggressive regulatory agency with the mission of protecting the flying public. One wonders: does the FAA even recognize how slack and inept it appears?