Reforming A Moribund Agency

Given the many instances in which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been chastised in this publication for ineptitude and industry coddling, some readers wonder what can be done to make the agency more effective at ensuring the safety of the traveling public? Herewith are my recommended actions. They are not in order of priority; in fact, all of these actions should be adopted in a comprehensive effort to shake the agency out of its regulatory torpor.

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All non-binding publications foisted in the aircraft industry should be cancelled forthwith, and such future publications should be halted. These publications include advisory circulars (ACs) and special airworthiness information bulletins (SAIBs). As the heading of an SAIB indicates, “This is information only. Recommendations aren’t mandatory.” The same applies to ACs. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these documents refer to manufacturer service bulletins which operators routinely receive.

Below is a typical SAIB for 5 April 2011 affecting Airbus and Boeing airliners:

“The airworthiness concern is not an unsafe condition that would warrant airworthiness directive action … Following a routine maintenance check, an airplane was found with a fault message that required replacing a fuel filter. The subsequent leak check found a leaking fuel nozzle … If not corrected, the incomplete weld in these fuel nozzles may lead to a fuel leak and eventual uncommanded in-flight shutdown of the engine.”

Sure sounds like an unsafe condition, but operators are referred to a Parker Hannifin Corporation service bulletin for corrective action. As the heading to the SAIB states, “Recommendations aren’t mandatory.” The only way to impose mandatory corrective action is to issue an airworthiness directive (AD), which requires corrective action.

If an issue does not rise to the level of AD action, the FAA need not clog operators’ mailboxes with advisory material.

Issue ADs and enforce compliance. Operator advice of compliance can be as simple as a tear-off coupon returned to the FAA office, sporting the aircraft’s tail number, a signature, completion date and a chief engineer’s stamp certifying completion of the AD. Falsifying such a document would amount to fraud and could be jail-worthy so compliance would be pretty much 100%.

At the same time, the FAA does not enforce compliance with worthy programs it does have. Airlines are required to submit service difficulty reports (SDRs) to the FAA on problems with aircraft encountered during flight. For example, the SDR database reveals dozens of instances of premature fuselage cracking which adequately demonstrate that the hole blown in the top of a Southwest Airlines B737 as just an extreme example of cracking found throughout aging fleets. If anything, the problem of imminent structural failure may be worse than suspected because the FAA does not insist on SDR reporting. Airline compliance ranges from 90%+ to 0%. That is correct: zero – for reports that are ostensibly required.

The FAA would have a much better idea of what is going on in the fleet if it enforced SDR filing.

The FAA has investigators looking into aircraft accidents – a job which duplicates that of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Unlike the NTSB, which produces detailed reports for the public, it is extremely rare for the FAA’s investigators to issue a public report, much less to hold a public hearing (as does the NTSB).

Terminate the FAA’s accident/incident investigation activity and divert/devote the scarce resources to the NTSB.

Speaking of the NTSB, one might recall that this agency issues comprehensive recommendations to the FAA and other entities following each accident it investigates. A small percentage of these recommendations rise to the importance of being placed on the NTSB’s “Most Wanted” list of aviation safety improvements. There are currently seven such aviation-unique “Most Wanted” recommendations. The NTSB has color-coded five of these recommendations as red, for unacceptable response. The other two are color coded yellow, denoting glacial progress. Note that not a single one of the NTSB’s “Most Wanted” recommendations has been complied with in a prompt manner by the FAA (these recommendations being coded green – for acceptable response, progressing in a timely manner).

One of the recommendations coded red is to: “Reduce dangers to aircraft flying in icing conditions.” Presently, an aircraft can be dispatched into icing conditions with which it may not be able to cope. This is an unconscionable situation.

The FAA gets more than one hundred recommendations annually from the NTSB; most are handled promptly because they are not controversial or hard to implement. The “Most Wanted” recommendations are usually both, but they are also the most significant – and they languish on the list for 10 to 15 years, if not longer. The usual suspicion is that these languishing recommendations would be too costly for the industry to implement, but such cost-benefit calculations are terribly prone to manipulation by agents of the status quo.

The “Most Wanted” recommendations are probably the most carefully crafted of the NTSB’s work. The FAA should be ordered to enact these recommendations within 18 months.

Recommendations languish on the list

Recommendations languish on the list

The FAA maintains a Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ, which performs fire, electrical wiring, thermal acoustic insulation and fuel tank safety research on behalf of the agency. One cannot name a single item – not one – in which the Technical Center’s work has resulted in a fleet-wide safety improvement mandated by the FAA. Some individuals may cite the Technical Center’s work on fuel tank safety, performed in the wake of the 1996 TWA Flight 800 disaster. However, as far back as 1977 Boeing patented a fuel tank inerting system for transport category aircraft which was more capable than the stripped down design advocated by the Technical Center. Boeing kept quiet about this system, which was never deployed on its airliners.

For having nil impact on the safety of flight, the Technical Center should close its doors. Either that, or keep the doors open under a more honest moniker of FAA Training Center.

The FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ

The FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ

The FAA often refers knotty problems to the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). The ARC is comprised of industry insiders and will spend months crafting recommendations to the FAA. Before it was renamed, the ARC was known as the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC). The standing joke inside the FAA is that the ARAC acronym really stood for “All Rulemaking Activity Ceases.” There’s truth in humor for you.

An ARAC examination of fuel tank safety never knew of the Boeing patent, suppressed a cost estimate of 25 cents per passenger ticket, and concluded that fuel tank inerting (injecting the void spaces in the tank with inert gas) was too expensive. A recent ARC wrestled with the issue of pilot fatigue, but never came to grips with the issue of pilots commuting cross-county to their place of work.

The ARC appears to guarantee proscription inaction (“proscriptive” – conveying an imposed restraint or restriction upon action or consideration). Abolish the ARC. FAA officials can deliberate themselves, without a heavy industry presence gumming up the works.

Occasionally FAA officials seem to get tough with the airlines. For example, the FAA proposed a $10.2 million forfeiture against Southwest Airlines for AD non-compliance. This penalty was negotiated down to $7.5 million on Southwest’s promise to rewrite some maintenance manuals. First of all, why is the FAA negotiating the size of the penalty? Second, why is the FAA reducing the penalty in exchange for corrective actions the carrier should have taken anyway?

These negotiations with the airlines always result in a lesser penalty in exchange for some token quid pro quo. Better to stick to the original penalty; do that once and the airlines will get the message – comply or else.

The FAA could better utilize the expertise of its unions. The National Association of Air Traffic Controllers (NATCA) and the Professional Airways System Specialists (PASS) have many thoughts about how to improve safety. The FAA’s relationship with these entities is one clouded by mistrust. These organizations should be an integral part of FAA safety deliberations.

Instead of punishing or ostracizing whistleblowers within the FAA, the agency should take a more creative, positive approach. In many cases, whistleblowers are people of integrity speaking out because they have found no recourse through official agency channels. One or more whistleblowers should be appointed to prominent positions within the FAA. A counterweight to the overwhelming majority of “yes men” is essential for the agency’s credibility and vitality.

The FAA’s main tool for exercising compliance of the airlines is the Air Transport Oversight System (ATOS). This program entails FAA inspectors checking records, not actual airplanes, maintenance activity or flying procedures. The FAA would be better informed if it scrapped ATOS and ordered its inspectors to assess actual activity.

Lastly, the top official at the FAA should not come from within the agency or the industry. For ensuring a proper focus on the safety of the flying public, a plaintiffs’ lawyer experienced in aviation litigation should be appointed to head the agency. Of course, the airline industry would be horrified, but a plaintiffs’ lawyer – appointed from the President’s home state – would have detailed knowledge of safety deficiencies which have killed and maimed. A former plaintiffs’ lawyer will not mouth incorrect platitudes about airline travel being the safest mode of transportation (it is not).

A plaintiffs’ lawyer just might shake the FAA out of the industry-friendly torpor which has plagued the agency for years.