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Major Overhaul of FAA Is Needed, Expert Tells Committee

Mon, Jul 21, 2008 — David Evans

Articles

Date: 8 July 2008
To: House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure
From: Gabriel D. Bruno
Subject: Rebuilding the FAA

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure under Rep. [James] Oberstar’s [D-MN] leadership has created a rare window of opportunity to reestablish a regulatory agency long misled and lost.  The opportunity to set the standard of public service and aviation safety will impact both public safety and economic viability for the air carriers for the next decade and beyond.

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Gabriel Bruno

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure under Rep. [James] Oberstar’s [D-MN] leadership has created a rare window of opportunity to reestablish a regulatory agency long misled and lost.  The opportunity to set the standard of public service and aviation safety will impact both public safety and economic viability for the air carriers for the next decade and beyond.The problems in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have become frequent headlines in our nation’s media, but now is the time for proactive solutions that place safety at the top of government regulatory responsibility while working with industry to restore public confidence.  Whatever actions are decided upon, the safety of the system cannot be mitigated because of the looming increases in operational costs to the air carriers.

This paper is not a critique of the DOT/IG Interim Report (AV-2008-057) [see Aviation Safety & Security Digest, ‘Congress Seeks Separation of Agency From Airlines,’ home page].  However, this is the insight of a long-time FAA manager who has experienced, and knows the FAA weaknesses from the inside.  The consistent pattern of behavior within the FAA management structure is to greet “recommendations,” whether from the DOT /IG, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and even Congress itself, with a benign smile, a nod of presumed agreement and complete disregard for any follow through.  FAA history is littered with broken promises.  If changes in behavior are truly going to be affected, the FAA has to own them.

I would like to suggest the following action items for the committee’s consideration.

1. CREATE AN EFFECTIVE FAA PRESENCE

The DOT/IG Interim Report does not address this.

A. No-notice inspections

For a start, inspectors can begin “no-notice inspections.” This can be done in an orderly fashion without first notifying air carriers and repair stations that they are going to be inspected on a certain date.  These no-notice inspections can have the positive effect of motivating the certificate-holders to always be in regulatory compliance that would pass an inspection rather than just on pre-determined scheduled dates.

B. Off hours inspections

Flight Standards can also reprogram a portion of the 70% of inspector time that is spent doing data entry for actual off-hours hands-on surveillance.  Much of the industry activity, both maintenance and operation, takes place at times other than the standard business day.  Requiring an inspector to dedicate a minimum of 20% of his/her programmed work during evenings and weekends would put them into a more realistic work activity environment, and would compliment and support a policy of no-notice inspections.  Taxpayers expect that inspectors will be inspecting and administrative personnel will be doing data entry.  The FAA inspector workforce needs to be fully mobilized.

C. Ten percent increase in inspector staff

Congress has already indicated its desire and willingness to increase the FAA inspector staffing levels.  The FAA has resisted taking this action, not because an increase in inspectors is not needed, but because this action would be the counter argument to all of the rhetoric the FAA has been putting out.  An FAA willingness to increase inspector levels would be an admission of the fallacy that the current oversight system in built upon.   It would result in more hands-on inspectors and less reliance on the unverified information that the current FAA oversight program utilizes – notably the Air Transport Oversight System (ATOS).

2. EDUCATE FLIGHT STANDARDS PERSONNEL TO CHANGES

DOT/IG recommendation #5:

“Ensure [the FAA’s] air carrier oversight mission clearly identifies the flying public as a primary stakeholder and beneficiary of its inspection efforts; FAA should commit to this in writing and clearly communicate it to all FAA inspection staff.”

The intention of the DOT/IG’s recommendation number 5 is on the mark (see box, left); however, the recommended action is insufficient.  In the face of an ingrained negative culture, only behavioral intervention can begin to reverse long-held counter-productive attitudes.  Requiring [Nicholas] Sabatini [FAA associate administrator for aviation safety] to go to each region to reiterate a commitment to public safety would only make a mockery of all of the committee’s efforts thus far.  His appearance in the eyes of the employees who know Sabatini’s responsibility for the current toxic culture would completely nullify the message.

A. Include cultural changes in new Inspector Indoctrination Training

The identification of what the necessary cultural changes are, and how they play a part in creating a renewed FAA presence as a government safety regulatory agency, need to drive a new standard for Flight Standards behavior.  The Flight Standards organizational behavior has to be connected with the reality of its mission.

B. Implement a specific training class for inspectors at FAA Academy.

Many of today’s FAA inspectors have only known the toxic culture that is currently in place and need a fresh start paradigm on what their safety role really is.  Many of the senior inspectors need a refresher on long-forgotten concepts of safety activities.

C. Implement a specific training class for supervisors and managers.

Many supervisors and managers have gained their promotions by their complicity in the current toxic culture.  It is critical that they fully understand the new behaviors that will be required of them and their opportunity to contribute to the effectiveness of the FAA’s safety oversight efforts.

D. Create opportunities to include FAA Public Relations spokespersons in these training classes.

As the “face” of the FAA in the media, the public relations personnel must be the first to gain a full understanding of the positive changes in focus and culture in the agency.  The FAA spokespersons would finally be able to speak about pro-active change at the agency, implemented by Congress and guided by the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (the enabling legislation that created the FAA) instead of always having to face the media with excuses for what went wrong.

These education actions would compliment and strengthen the intentions of the DOT/IG’s recommendation number 5.

3.  REPAIR/MODIFY/AMEND FLIGHT STANDARDS’ INSPECTION PROGRAMS

A. ATOS overhaul

The ATOS program needs an overhaul, not just another ineffective gimmick-ridden rewrite of computer entry codes.  The weight placed on the actual         inspector’s findings needs to be increased for analysis.  As it stands, the ATOS program is nothing more than an administrative processing of information that the air carriers want the FAA to have, and the subsequent FAA rubber-stamping of that information without any verification process. In other words, it is nothing more than an illusion of an inspection program.

More credible hard data needs to be included during analysis of a carrier. For example, the Service Difficulty Reporting System (SDRS) that is minimally adhered to today should be one of the main pillars of an overhauled ATOS to provide real life experiences for identifying potential trends.  An analysis of the SDRS program shows that the FAA has been content with a low air carrier compliance rate (20% – 30%) with the program demonstrating that the FAA has a real blind eye for potentially serious trends.

Incredibly, access to the SDRS program was recently taken off-line, a further demonstration of FAA intent to preserve the illusion that reported safety issues are sporadic aberrations and not systemic.

A true air carrier inspection and analysis system needs to effectively include the various existing programs (e.g. Program Tracking and Reporting Subsystem, PTRS, Safety Performance Analysis System, SPAS) as part of the analysis effort that drives inspector activities and safety policy.  This does not require inventing costly new programs, only effectively synchronizing and utilizing programs that already exist, and doing away with the illusion-factor.

DOT/IG recommendation #7:

“Create a national review team to conduct periodic quality assurance reviews of FAA’s oversight of air carriers to ensure that (a) appropriate processes and procedures are being applied consistently, and (b) pertinent policies, laws, and regulations are being followed.”

FAA’s agreed action to DOT/IG recommendation number 7 (see box, left), to better track ATOS activity and do quarterly Alert Notifications, is just more of the fox guarding the chicken coop.  If FAA could be trusted to honestly track its activities, the SWA [Southwest Airlines] hearing and AAL [American Airlines] groundings would have never been necessary (see Aviation Safety & Security Digest, ‘Committee Vows to Legislate Changes to Strengthen Oversight of Airlines,’ archive).  Under Sabatini, the FAA lacks the necessary integrity to make any tracking system valid.  So far, it has taken individual whistleblowers to do what the system should be doing as routine business.

B. Voluntary Disclosure Programs (VDPs)

DOT/IG recommendations #1 & #2:

“1. Implement and enforce a process for second-level supervisory review of self-disclosure before they are accepted and closed – acceptance and closure should not rest solely with one operator.”

“2. Ensure that inspectors (a) verify that are carriers take comprehensive actions to correct the underlying causes of violations identified through self-disclosure programs, and (b) evaluate – before accepting a new report of a previously disclosed violation – whether the carrier developed and implemented a comprehensive solution.”

The VDPs can and provide valuable information. They have, however, been misused under Sabatini’s administration.  For example, inspectors tipping off their assigned carrier to file a VDP on a violation avoids a sanction and saves the inspector work and embarrassment.  What needs to be accomplished is an authentic correction that brings about the right kind of collaboration with the carriers.

The FAA’s agreed actions with the DOT/IG’s recommendations 1 and 2 amount to minor process additions that the FAA should have been doing long ago without outside influence (see box, left).  Sabatini is desperately trying to embed himself in the DOT/IG’s recommended corrective actions by accepting everything that does not openly threaten his power structure.  Recommendations 1 and 2 are totally non-threatening to the control structure Sabatini has put into place.  These recommendations are like rubbing a disobedient puppy’s nose into his “business.”

The place to get these VDPs back on track is at the field inspector level.  If the field inspectors are convinced that the FAA is truly changing for the better, they will administer these programs as originally intended for useful safety information, not a way to escape a violation.  Inspector accountability needs to be the basis for any FAA inspection program.  The key here is that definitive action I keep coming back to: Sabatini’s removal.

C. Scrap the Customer Service Initiative program (CSI)

Sabatini’s Customer Service Initiative needs to be scrapped.  It’s a project that he utilized to identify and remove inspectors who have attempted to enforce the FARs [Federal Aviation Regulations].  There have always been communication channels for operators to utilize when questioning the application of a particular regulation.  This is how the FAA’s General Counsel Office in Headquarters has developed an extensive regulatory interpretation file over the years and continues to maintain this file.  When I worked in Headquarters Flight Standards, one of my responsibilities was to facilitate industry questions about regulations and their legal interpretations.  This was always done without negative repercussions to the inspector involved, whether or not the questions came from the inspector or directly from the carrier.  The CSI is nothing more than Sabatini’s pandering to the industry and has never produced any useful safety product.

4. BUILD AN EFFECTIVE INDUSTRY LIASON

The DOT/IG Interim Report does not address this.

A. Develop a familiarization course for industry representatives

The FAA owes constructive information to the air carriers that have been treated as customers to be cultivated rather than businesses that are under government regulatory safety oversight.  To properly clarify and define the government-industry roles, the course should address at least:

  1. FAA responsibilities

  2. FAA authority (FA Act of 1958)

  3. Industry responsibilities in a regulatory environment

  4. FAA expectations of industry in increasingly costly environment

B. FAA and air carrier accountability

The FAA needs to return to the FA Act of 1958 as its guiding document.  This Congressionally enabling legislation provides all of the authority the agency needs without creating additional burdensome regulatory actions.  This would require a regulatory atmosphere to be established with FAA and air carrier accountability.  By accountability, I don’t mean a “shoot ‘em in the head” philosophy, but also not the “quid pro quo” that has been in place for the past several years.  Today, the industry is actually deciding where the standard will be and the FAA is rubber-stamping that.  An effective balance of accountability must be struck in the relationship between the FAA and the industry, and this can be accomplished within current FAA resources.

C. Closing the revolving door.

DOT/IG recommendation #4:

“Implement post-employment guidance that includes a ‘cooling off’ period (e.g., 2 years) that prohibits an FAA inspector hired at an air carrier he or she previously inspected from acting in any type of liaison capacity between FAA and the carrier.”

There needs to be consideration given to a three-year employment restriction, to dampen favoritism effects, by Flight Standards employees moving into industry.  DOT/IG recommendation number 4 is insufficient because this still allows for employment by the air carrier where the inspector could already have feathered her/his nest (see box, left).  S/He would still be able to operate behind the scenes with carrier complicity and merely present another carrier employee as the liaison.  The carrier can put any employee in the position of signing documents.  A true employment restriction is necessary, and should be developed during the FAA rulemaking project to effectively address this issue.

5. PERIODIC ROTATION OF SUPERVISORY INSPECTORS

DOT/IG recommendation #3:

“Develop procedures for periodically rotating supervisory inspectors to ensure reliable and objective air carrier oversight.”

It is ironic that the FAA bases it’s non-concurrence with DOT/IG recommendation number 3 on costs, considering the incredible amount of wasted funds that have been poured into the ATOS program, and the relentless generosity of Congress toward the FAA that has been abused (see box, left).  The agency has repeatedly refused funding for more inspectors, but continued to pour resources into the existing ATOS program that puts blinders on the safety inspectors, and has proven ineffective in uncovering safety issues.

What was the cost of the thousands of American Airlines flight groundings, and the economic damage done to the country caused by the lethargic, cozy relationship between the FAA and the air carriers?

The FAA’s non-concurrence with OIG recommendation number 3 is deflecting the real issue.  It is not a question of money; the agency has repeatedly declined to accept money that Congress has offered to pay for additional safety inspectors.  The entire construct of Sabatini’s management is framed in the Customer Service Initiative.  If the supervisory work force is required periodically to shift jobs out of the oversight of a specific air carrier certificate, the deferential attitude of CSI toward that certificate will be difficult to maintain. In government service, determinate assignments are not at all uncommon. Whatever costs are incurred can be mitigated by defining CMO supervisory positions as three-year assignments, this is nothing more than the normal process of career progression that should exist under merit promotion.

Re-instilling integrity and erasing an attitude of entitlement is the real goal.

6. INDEPENDENT SAFETY REVIEWS

DOT/IG recommendation #8:

“Establish an independent organization (that reports directly to the FAA Administrator or Deputy Administrator) to investigate safety issues identified by FAA employees.”

The DOT/IG’s rejection of the FAA’s Safety Issues Report System (SIRS) as a response to recommendation number 8 for independent review is well founded (see box, left).   This recommendation to create an independent organization to investigate FAA employee safety concerns is the single most important recommendation, and threatens the power structure of the Sabatini regime.

When Rep. Oberstar announced that the FAA is in the worst shape he has seen in 23 years and needs a house cleaning from top to bottom, his words resonated with every FAA employee who has been trying to survive in the current toxic culture.

One only has to look at the tremendous number of whistleblowers that have flooded the Office of Special Counsel looking for an independent entity to examine their safety concerns.

Sabatini’s hastily developed SIRS program is his pathetic, desperate attempt to pander to Congress just as his CSI pandered to the aviation industry.  To accept the SIRS program as a legitimate solution to ensuring corrective actions and protecting honest employees would be analogous to allowing Sabatini to run the Congressional hearings on FAA whistleblowers.

The totally preventable events of the past few months have demonstrated a need for major overhaul of the FAA.  The grounding of hundreds of airliners because they did not comply with airworthiness requirements and the stranding of hundreds of thousands of passengers due to thousands of cancelled flights is a situation that cannot be allowed to happen again.  Unquantified economic damage was done to our country.  The sum total of all of this FAA malfeasance is a call for closer Congressional oversight of the FAA.

These proposed actions are intended to inspire public confidence and demonstrate the seriousness of Congressional intent to deal with the FAA mismanagement and malfeasance that has been testified to. Of course, these actions need to be backed up with the appropriate removals and disciplinary actions, not just allowing the people responsible for this institutionalized debacle to slink off into a comfortable retirement.


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