‘Stakeholders’ Substituted for ‘Customers’ in Dubious Agency Safety Changes

Tue, Sep 22, 2009 — David Evans


Airlines and airplane manufacturers will no longer be called “customers” by the agency that regulates them, setting the first stage of reforming what many believe has been the Federal Aviation Agency’s (FAA) too-cozy relationship with corporate entities.

Under the so-called “Customer Service Initiative” (CSI) in effect these last few years, the FAA vowed to treat its favored airlines and manufacturers with a “partnership” attitude that included, “Clear guidance on how you can elevate your concerns to the next higher level of authority” within the FAA. Under the FAA’s concept, passengers were not considered “customers” of the FAA’s regulatory and safety initiatives. In fact, the rights and concerns of passengers were not even mentioned in the CSI, which was oriented solely to companies subject to the FAA’s regulatory activity.

The chummy and clubby relationship proved an embarrassment to the FAA. Under the CSI, Southwest Airlines was allowed to continue flying airplanes with unapproved parts, a decision that was strongly criticized by the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) as unjustified in light of the many questions raised by the action.

“FAA needs to understand who its customer is,” the BTC said in a 2 September press release. “FAA rules were created to ensure significant margins of safety for the flying public. Under the current administration, BTC was hopeful that FAA would change direction from treating the airlines as customers to focusing on the safety and security of passengers.”

A recent article in this publication was also critical of the agency’s characterization of aviation businesses as customers. This article, widely circulated, may have influenced the FAA decision to recast the CSI. (See Aviation Safety Digest, ‘Decision Disputed Allowing Airline to Operate With Unapproved Parts’)

The FAA was already under pressure from Congress to modify its CSI. In its “FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009” (H.R. 915), yet to be enacted, Congress directed the FAA to modify its CSI:

“(1) To remove any reference to air carriers or other entities regulated by the Agency as ‘customers’;

(2) To clarify that in regulating safety the only customers of the Agency are individuals travelling in aircraft …”

Now, less than a week after the BTC and this publication expressed sharp questions about the CSI, the new Administrator of the FAA, Randy Babbitt, announced a number of changes in response to what he characterized as “public safety complaints and whistleblower contributions.”

“These changes make it clear that the FAA’s number-one customer is the public,” Babbitt said.

These announced changes may be less substantive than they are characterized by the FAA.

Regarding CSI, the agency stated:

“The FAA will no longer refer to airlines as the agency’s ‘customer.’ Instead, through the Consistency and Standardization Initiative, the FAA is now providing managers and supervisors in safety offices around the nation with guidance to ensure that FAA decisions are consistent with rules and policies and are communicated in a standard, consistent manner.”

Note how the CSI acronym remains unchanged, now to stand for “Consistency and Standardization Initiative” rather than “Customer Service Initiative.” And the former description of the CSI has been removed from the FAA’s website; particulars of the new “Consistency and Standardization Initiative” will be transmitted directly to the agency’s field officers. No danger here of the nosy public questioning contents on the FAA’s web site.

Babbitt’s mention of the passenger as the FAA’s customer is nowhere to be seen in the new CSI. Rather than “customers,” companies are now to be called “stakeholders.” As before, the stakeholders are assured that the “partnership” remains unchanged:

“When someone (the ‘stakeholder’) disagrees with a decision from an FAA inspector or engineer, the employee’s manager reviews that decision. The stakeholder and the FAA employees may have face-to-face meetings, telephone conversations or e-mail exchanges to try and resolve the issue at the local level …

“If a stakeholder doesn’t accept the proposed resolution at the field level, they can appeal to the appropriate FAA regional office … If the stakeholder is (not) satisfied … the appeal may be addressed to … Flight Standards or Aircraft Certification at FAA headquarters in Washington.”

There is no mention of standing behind the original FAA employee’s decision. Rather, the employee can look forward to endless reviews all the way up the chain of command, with no assurance that he or she will be protected or that the original decision, however sound, will stand. The process is one of giving airlines and manufacturers every opportunity to air grievances and to go-around, subvert or gain relief from a decision they disagree with.

A similar evasiveness surrounds Babbitt’s announced new Office of Audit and Evaluation. This office will oversee the FAA Administrator’s Hotline, the Aviation Safety Hotline, the Public Inquiry Hotline, the Whistleblower Protection Hotline, and the Safety Issues Reporting System. By this arrangement, all questions of FAA safety oversight are funneled through the Office of Audit and Evaluation. An FAA whistleblower, therefore, will have his concern shortstopped before it gets to the Administrator (or, heavens, leaks to the public).

The listing of safety programs managed by the new office is missing the most important: the National Aviation Operational Monitoring Service, or NAOMS. Managed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the FAA, NAOMS was an innovative attempt to identify risks to air safety through structured interviews of pilots, air traffic controller, flight attendants and mechanics. In its first iteration, NAOMS interviews indicated that runway safety was far less than the FAA had stated for years. The research effort was stopped dead in its tracks by FAA non-support, in large measure, one suspects, because its results could not be controlled by the FAA. So while the list of safety feedback programs the new Office of Audit and Evaluation handles is superficially impressive, the one program that would provide an independent, objective measure of risk – NAOMS – was not included. (See Aviation Safety Digest, ‘Data Dump Released and Criticized’)

Nor does the new Office of Audit and Evaluation square with the Congressional intent for independence. H.R. 915 calls for an Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office to be independent, with direct reporting to the Administrator and the authority to not disclose the identity or identifying information of an individual who submits a complaint of FAA activity regarding an order, regulation or standard of safety.

In fact, the Audit & Evaluation office takes a rather narrow view of just who can blow the whistle on the FAA. The “Whistleblower Protection Hotline” is described thusly: “Coordinates with the Department of Labor on safety disclosures made by private-sector aviation workers, including government contractors.”

Not a word about FAA employees who may be willing to put their jobs and careers on the line when their superiors get too cozy with stakeholders.

The sum total of Babbitt’s frankly dubious safety initiatives ought to be subjected to independent, knowledgeable scrutiny before they’re put into effect. Since the initiatives are so at variance with the provisions of H.R. 915, Congress should demand that its investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), examine each of Babbitt’s initiatives to determine:

1) Whether they mark a clean break with the incestuous habits and practices of the FAA in recent years.

2) Whether they truly advance the notion of independent oversight of the FAA’s safety functions, and

3) Whether the government employees performing the announced functions will be liable in any way for retribution.

The new organizations and processes announced by Babbitt should only be authorized after independently reviewed and approved by the GAO.

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