In the Flying Public’s Interest

With the change in presidential administrations, and the appointment of a new person to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency has the opportunity to become more accountable to the flying public.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, has vowed to change the FAA’s Customer Service Initiative (CSI), because he thinks this approach is absolutely wrong. Under the CSI, the FAA treated airlines and airplane manufacturers as valued customers. In Congressional hearings, the FAA’s “cozy” relationship with the industry was roundly criticized.

If CSI is abolished – as it should be – what could be done to make the FAA more accountable to the flying public? After all, passengers are really the customers the FAA serves to protect through various safety programs.

And yet these customers know virtually nothing about the airline or airplane on which they’ll be flying. Contrast the situation with other services; even hairdressers (barbers) and financial planners (not to mention lawyers) have to post their certificates upon their walls above their “cockpits” (desks/chair/computers). In aviation, there is an inbuilt pact of trust implicit in the “terms of carriage,” and the Airworthiness Certificate and Registration Certificate is posted inside every cockpit door. But the general public has very little knowledge of these documents.

One thing that could be done is to create a new page on the FAA’s website, along the lines of a “full disclosure concept,” in which Joe Q. Public could access the following information on every airline, air taxi and air charter company:

  • The name of the airline or company.


  • The names of the FAA’s Principal Operations Inspector (POI) for that company, and the FAA’s Principal Maintenance Inspector (PMI). These individuals provide primary FAA oversight. In addition to listing their names, the FAA should indicate their telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, so that customer concerns can be logged directly. Oh, and how long these individuals have been assigned to the company should be provided, as an excessive amount of time can be an indicator of the aforesaid “cozy relationship.” The FAA has actively resisted the notion of transferring POIs and PMIs to other companies every three years.


  • Whether or not the company participates in the FAA’s Air Transport Oversight System (ATOS), the number of FAA inspectors assigned to ATOS teams (short staffing being a problem), and the number of inspectors who possess licenses to fly the aircraft used by the operator.


  • Whether or not the company has established a Safety Management System (SMS). The FAA recommends but does not require an operator to implement SMS, but at those airlines where SMS is practiced, safety improves and, amazingly, costs are reduced.


  • Whether or not the company has an Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), by which pilots and maintainers can report safety problems. The ASAP program at American Airlines  ceased recently, apparently because of mistrust between pilots and management.


  • Whether or not the company has a Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) program for measuring and assessing deviations from approved flying procedures.


  • The oldest, youngest and average age of each type of aircraft in the company’s fleet.


  • Where the aircraft are maintained; that is, by the company, or is maintenance outsourced, and to whom?


  • By airplane model, the latest airworthiness directive from the FAA, the latest service bulletin from the manufacturer, and when these requirements or recommended practices must be implemented. If not already incorporated, when action is scheduled to be taken.


  • When each airplane was last overhauled, with comparable information on each airplane’s engines (as they often are handled on a separate schedule).


  • Deployment on all airplanes of essential safety equipment, to include TCAS (Traffic Alert Collision Avoidance System) and TAWS (Terrain Avoidance Warning System), which airplanes do not have this equipment fitted and when they are slated for it.


  • The cabin air quality, to include airflow, ozone, allergens, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, infectious agents and humidity. The FAA has resisted efforts to measure and improve cabin air quality for years, and its requirement for 10 cubic feet per minute of fresh air is substantially less than that recommended for public buildings by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).


  • Use of positive passenger-bag match (PPBM) on domestic as well as international flights to tighten security and improve service. PPBM yields fewer lost or misrouted bags.

To be sure, while airline and FAA officials are predictably fervent in publicly declaring their commitment to safety, there is a reluctance to make the safety record available to the flying public. Yet some overseas carriers provide relevant safety-related information on their public websites. Japan Airlines, for example, publishes (1) the corporate safety policy, (2) information on selection and training of flight crews, (3) information on maintenance activities, (4) on board technology to enhance safety, such as predictive wind shear systems, (5) cabin safety and emergency procedures, and (6) statistical information on operations. This section includes not only the on-time performance of the airline, but also information regarding major flight irregularities, such as precautionary landings.

It is also within the state-of-the-art to generate a useful safety index or score. In fact, the UK-based FlightSafe Consultants Ltd. has produced a safety index based on a carrier’s past accident record and ten other factors related to underlying safety levels. These indices include fleet age, fleet composition (all newest-technology airplanes to all oldest-technology), the quality of airline management, and so forth. The FlightSafe calculation features a safety multiplier, in which a heavier penalty is applied as the accident rate per 100,000 landings increases. For example, a rate of 1 accident per 100,000 landings carries a multiplier of 0.80, and a multiplier of 0.40 is applied to a rate of 9 accidents per 100,000 landings.

As part of the calculations, fatal accidents carry double the weight of minor accidents. An airline can score between 10 (a perfect safety record) and 0 (which applies automatically to those carriers with 25 or more accidents per 100,000 landings).

It is suspected carriers will not relish the FAA putting out information such as that suggested here. But, then, imagine an FAA website that carries real safety information, not just self-serving rhetoric, which is the present situation.

The list of items could be pared. Like it is said, if you want a radio, ask for a color television.

But based on a new government theme of transparency, relevant safety information could – and should – be provided in the public interest.