Time to Reverse the FAA’s Priorities

Congressman John Mica (R-FL) is a master at avoiding obvious issues. Mica stands poised to inherit the chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He’s been the ranking member under Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN), who failed re-election.

Mica was quick to issue a press release regarding the next, 112th Congress, which said in part:

“If selected by my peers to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the next Congress … Among my top legislative priorities will be passing … a long-overdue Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization (and) better management and utilization of federal assets.”

Rep. John Mica (R-FL)

Rep. John Mica (R-FL)

Of course, adequately funding the FAA is essential – it has to be kept open to conduct business, and “better management” is always a laudable goal.

Now let’s get down to particulars –

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in late October on aircraft certification within the FAA whose title reveals how substantially deficient the GAO review was substantively: “Aviation Safety: Certification and Approval Processes Are Generally Viewed as Working Well …”

In a 29 October press release, Mica said:

“The FAA must address the inconsistencies and eliminate the costly confusion and delays in its certification process. I am concerned FAA bureaucrats are making U.S. aviation less competitive, and that if the problems are not quickly resolved, NextGen [the Next Generation air traffic control system] will be negatively impacted.”

Let’s see how “FAA bureaucrats” are gumming up the works on certification. The Eclipse EA-500 twinjet is an excellent example. Based on revelations that unfolded at an Aviation Subcommittee hearing in September 2008, the FAA clearly accommodated the wishes of an upstart manufacturer by granting all that it asked for and by ignoring shortcomings in design and by shelving critical safety issues to be solved at a later date. The FAA accepted “IOUs” from Eclipse that avionics software would meet the accepted industry standard – after certification.

Mid-level FAA witnesses from offices in Ft. Worth and San Antonio at the hearing testified that this type of certification was rushed and that the production certificate was issued before Eclipse could demonstrate an ability to replicate the design in mass production.

These local FAA officials were followed at the hearing by a table full of senior Washington-based FAA officials. They defended their actions overruling the local FAA offices by stating, basically, that the locals just were not thinking “outside the box” to approve the EA-500 design and its manufacturing. (See Aviation Safety Journal, September 2008, “Airplane Certified by FAA Despite Concerns”)

As Chairman Oberstar opined at the time:

“There is a disturbing suggestion that there was another ‘cozy relationship’ and reduced level of vigilance on the FAA’s part.”

Eclipse has since gone bankrupt; however, this a very inefficient way to protect the flying public, and there is no question top FAA officials, instead of supporting their subordinates’ legitimate objections, went out of their way to roughshod the regulations and accommodate Eclipse.

We see the same action taken in airliner certification. The FAA issues “special conditions” when no regulations, or outmoded rules, exist to approve new designs, such as Boeing’s all-composite B787. The FAA would do better keeping its regulations current with the march of technology, and holding manufacturers accountable.

We see the FAA accommodating the industry with a move to have its inspectors look more at paperwork than actual airplanes.

We see this accommodating attitude in the FAA allowing critical safety programs to be optional, like Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) to analyze deviations from accepted norms.

We see the FAA accommodating the airline industry by issuing a proposed rule on pilot fatigue which ignores the problem of aircrews commuting hundreds of miles to their base stations. (See Aviation Safety Journal, “Rules Proposed on Pilot Rest Requirements”)

We see the FAA accommodating the helicopter ambulance industry with proposed regulations that ignore the incentive to pursue “golden trout” patients in bad weather. (See Aviation Safety Journal, “Medical Helicopter Standards Proposed”)

 The problem isn’t the need for “better management” in the FAA, as Mica suggests, but management that holds the industry accountable for safety on behalf of the flying public.

The passengers, not the industry, are the FAA’s “customers.” The FAA needs to reverse its priorities. It would have been refreshing to hear such a statement from Mica.