Out of the Clouds of Incest & Into the Clear Skies of Accountability

The process by which airplanes are certified for production has taken some withering fire of late, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to issue what might be called a “no fault found” report.

Unfortunately, the Special Certification Review (SCR) that a study team convened by the FAA produced takes a narrow, mechanistic approach. The report argues that the certification of the Eclipse EA-500 Very Light Jet was entirely proper, that there were some communications problems between FAA field offices and Washington headquarters, but these issues can be tweaked and everything will work out fine. (See Aviation Safety & Security Digest, ‘Special Certification Review Comes Up Short,’ home page.)

This predictable and safe prescription from an SCR comprised almost entirely by FAA officials appointed, one suspects, because of their malleability to the existing order, is not likely to abate the anger in Congress over the appearance (and the reality) of collusion between the FAA and the airlines and manufacturers.

Recall the 3 April hearing of the House Aviation Subcommittee, which aired complaints of local mid-level FAA officials that Southwest and American Airlines were able to delay compliance with airworthiness directives (ADs) because of a “cozy relationship” with seniors at FAA headquarters. Especially criticized by the Congressmen at that hearing was the FAA’s Customer Service Initiative (CSI), which described the airlines and the manufacturers as the agency’s clients – not the traveling public the FAA theoretically exists to serve. (See Aviation Safety & Security Digest, ‘Committee Vows to Legislate Changes to Strengthen Oversight of Airlines,’ home page.)

The CSI came up again at the 17 September hearing by the same subcommittee into the Eclipse EA-500 certification. (See Aviation Safety & Security Digest, ‘Airplane Certified by FAA Despite Concerns,’ home page.) Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the full Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, summed up the situation:

“There are disturbing similarities between the testimony we will hear today, and the hearing we held on April 3rd involving regulatory abuses at the FAA office charged with overseeing Southwest Airlines. Once again, we will hear how the FAA’s ‘Customer Service Initiative’ mistakenly treats those who are the subject of regulation as the ‘customer,’ and how it has the potential to create conflicts with the FAA’s one and only mandate – safety.

“I fear that complacency may have set in at the highest levels of FAA management, reflecting a pendulum swing away from vigorous enforcement of compliance, toward an industry-favorable, cozy relationship. This time it involves a manufacturer instead of an airline.

“In this case, the FAA remains steadfast in its assertion that no federal regulations were violated. However, when the findings of this investigation are viewed in total, there is a disturbing suggestion that there was another ‘cozy relationship’ and reduced level of vigilance on the FAA’s part during the process of approving the type certificate and the production certificate of the Eclipse EA-500.”

At both the 3 April and the 17 September hearings the senior FAA official present was Nicholas Sabatini, the associate administrator for safety. His office has overall responsibility for airline and manufacturer oversight.

He came under sharp questioning at both hearings by Oberstar. At the 17 September hearing, Oberstar asked, “The [Eclipse] production certificate was approved with 13 deficiencies. How can that be, Mr. Sabatini?”

Sabatini: “Our inspectors were engaged in an ongoing process to get them rectified …”

Oberstar sniffed that adjustments were made in accordance with the “Customer Service Initiative.” He indicated bluntly that the “Customer Service Initiative” may be abolished legislatively, even if the FAA strikes it.

Given that almost six months separated the two hearings, one would think FAA bureaucrats would have gotten the message and changed the wording of the “Customer Service Initiative” in the interim – to reflect the Congressional concerns expressed last April.

No matter; there may be a better course. It seems that the mere moniker of a “Customer Service Initiative” is misguided, as the FAA has no customers. It should be titled a “Public Service Plan,” which could summarize in plain language statutes and administrative regulations governing the operation of the FAA – which is to ensure the safety of the flying public.

By this simple adjustment, the use of FAA personnel and resources could better be applied to maintenance oversight and to certification issues, as opposed to marketing efforts.

And with regard to certification, the totality of evidence – of which the Special Certification review is but the latest example – is overwhelming: the process is not transparent. That could be rectified. It seems that the Department of Transportation Inspector General (DOT/IG), who offered devastating testimony at both hearings, could examine the certification process separately. This would go a long way towards ensuring future impartiality.

If that means the DOT/IG has a representative on the FAA headquarters certification team for direct oversight, and untrammeled access to all paperwork, that could only be a good thing. To be sure, “outside the loop” externalized oversight would be a blow to the pride of FAA’s senior leadership, but the short-term embarrassment might give way to an appreciation for the virtues of independent checks and balances. Imagine having to get a DOT/IG signature of approval before Sabatini or his successor issues a type or production certificate.

With a “Public Service Plan” and approval required first by the DOT/IG, the “cozy relationship” may give way, over time, to one routinely meeting the regulations, instead of whining for relief or special treatment.

Besides which, the FAA would then be in a role the flying public mis-perceived the agency was playing all along – assuring safety.