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Monday, June 1, 2009

FAA Oversight of Aircraft Maintenance

By David Schober, A&P, IA

Last year, despite safeguards, safety systems and numerous checks and balances, airlines faced fines and flight cancellations costing them millions of dollars. What went wrong and who was to blame?

Just about a year ago, the traveling public was faced with massive flight cancellations and delays brought about by lax maintenance practices at several airlines. This lax attitude towards maintenance and record keeping was permitted and even encouraged by FAA inspectors and once the cat was out of the bag, the finger pointing started.

Congress demanded changes and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held hearings last April on "Critical Lapses in FAA Oversight of Airlines: Abuses of Regulatory ‘Partnership Programs’". Whenever we look at "lax maintenance practices," we also need to consider the potential unethical behaviors that led up to the substandard maintenance and record keeping. Mechanics, inspectors, managers, and FAA inspectors all have an ethical responsibility to themselves, their employers and the traveling public. Failing to maintain those strong ethics results in a flawed safety system.

After a review of the events that lead up to these cancellations and the Congressional hearings, it seems that systems FAA designed to ensure compliance and help improve safety were being bypassed or used as a method of avoiding compliance. FAA instituted ATOS (air transportation oversight system) and VDRP (voluntary disclosure reporting program) to improve the ability to perform surveillance on air carriers and provide a method for those carriers to report quality escapes without fear of certificate action by the FAA.

Reporting Requirements

The VDRP has five requirements for its use. AC 00-58 says in part that this voluntary reporting must meet these requirements to avoid the imposition of penalty:

  1. The certificate holder, qualified fractional ownership program, or production approval holder (PAH) has notified the FAA of the apparent violation immediately after detecting it and before the agency has learned of it by other means.

  2. The apparent violation was inadvertent.

  3. The apparent violation does not indicate a lack, or reasonable question, of qualification of the certificate holder, qualified fractional ownership program, or PAH.

  4. Immediate action, satisfactory to the FAA, was taken upon discovery to terminate the conduct that resulted in the apparent violation.

  5. The certificate holder, qualified fractional ownership program or PAH has developed or is developing a comprehensive fix and schedule of implementation satisfactory to the FAA. The comprehensive fix includes a follow-up self-audit to ensure that the action taken corrects the noncompliance. This self-audit is in addition to any FAA audits.

Southwest Airlines

From the recorded testimony at the T&I Committee hearings, it is clear that in the case of Southwest Airlines, several of the above requirements were not complied with. While Southwest continues to portray that there was never a safety issue, they recently agreed to pay a $7.5-million fine, along with implementing 13 safety-related steps in their operation.

The true heroes of this situation are the two FAA inspectors that raised the flag on the unethical behavior of fellow inspectors at the Southwest certificate holding office and certain company employees. These inspectors put their jobs and reputations on the line to report these behaviors.

This process started about two years ago. During the period of investigation, these inspectors were transferred to other duties and treated like pariah by fellow FAA inspectors and managers. These inspectors should have been rewarded for their diligence. All should strive to the same ethical standards that these two inspectors displayed. Early in 2007, one of the FAA inspectors found discrepancies in AD compliance at Southwest. Over the course of that investigation, Southwest utilized the VDRP to disclose the AD non-compliance. The PMI accepted the VDRP even though the discrepancy was actually discovered by one of his inspectors and not the airline. Southwest subsequently stated in the VDRP that the issue had been corrected and that all aircraft were in compliance, yet several airplanes still needed to be inspected and these aircraft were still being used in commercial service, even after the VDRP was submitted and before compliance with the AD.

It was also noted within the testimony that the person employed at Southwest with responsibility for compliance was a former FAA inspector that had worked for the PMI while at FAA. Throughout the information on record, it was identified that the PMI was more concerned for the financial well being of the carrier he was supposed to be checking, than about regulatory compliance.

From the testimony of the inspectors involved, it would seem that the PMI’s behavior was condoned by his supervisors and possibly even known about at the regional office. The FAA should still be investigating these issues and it is unknown at this point how high in the chain of command this may have gone.

While the T&I hearings included testimony concerning the Southwest issues, other airlines were not discussed. Yet we find that during the months of March and April 2008, several airlines found it necessary to ground portions of their fleets to perform inspections. It would seem that other certificate holding offices had similar programs that allowed the operation of aircraft outside the scope of the requirements of airworthiness directives.

Whistleblower Protection

The two inspectors referenced earlier reported these inconsistencies under the provisions of whistleblower protection. When the whistleblower investigation was completed, FAA’s Nick Sabatini, then-associate administrator for safety, issued a memo on March 18, 2008 to all airlines indicating noncompliance by one carrier would result in spot checks of all carriers AD compliance programs:

"We have asked our principal maintenance inspectors to begin an in-depth review of your program for compliance with airworthiness directives. One carrier’s noncompliance with ADs makes it necessary for us to validate our system for overseeing your management of this regulatory requirement.

By the end of last year, we transitioned the air carrier industry to the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS) — a systems-based approach to ensuring compliance with regulations. ATOS emphasizes the importance of an air carrier’s responsibility to have processes that effectively manage regulatory requirements — like the requirement to comply with ADs.

We remain committed to using our oversight system to identify hazards and mitigate risks. This in-depth review will assure us — and you — that we have sufficient data to evaluate the AD system.

To validate the effectiveness of your system, inspectors will audit a sample of ADs that applies to your fleet. By March 28, 2008, they will complete review of 10 ADs per fleet. In total, they will complete a review of 10 percent of the ADs applicable to your fleet. I know you share our commitment to the safety of the fleet and I expect your full cooperation with this audit."

This memo prompted the other carriers to review their maintenance programs and the resulting aircraft groundings were a result of certain airlines finding that they had AD compliance issues requiring attention prior to the FAA audits.

It is understood that ADs are regulatory in nature. In fact, all ADs are part of 14 CFR 39 and the compliance with these directives is required for an aircraft to meet the requirements of its airworthiness certificate. No FAA inspector has the authority to grant relief from an AD. Most ADs do have the provision to obtain an alternative means of compliance (AMOC), but the FSDO inspectors are not the ones that can grant this AMOC. The airlines all know that AD compliance is required, yet some choose to ignore this requirement or delay compliance beyond the time limits specified in the ADs.

Other Airlines

United, American and others found aircraft that were not in compliance and canceled flights so they could bring them up to date. In the case of American, they inspected aircraft once, then grounded them again when they realized that while they had complied with the intent of AD 2006-15-15, they were not in strict compliance with the actual method of compliance identified in the service bulletin.

Had the airlines been doing their jobs of maintaining their aircraft, none of these groundings and subsequent flight delays would have taken place. Had the Southwest incident not been identified, this practice of extending compliance times may have continued indefinitely.

Regulatory compliance is the responsibility of everyone participating in aviation. FAA doesn’t have enough inspectors to check all operations and in fact, depends on each individual to have a compliant attitude.

While the events above are based on airline operations, the compliance with ADs is required for all aircraft. There are times when AD compliance is challenging. FAA legal language often makes an AD hard to understand, and the new plain language ADs are even worse.

The method of indexing ADs can make it difficult to identify if an AD is applicable to a given product, and the constant AD revisions and "super-cedures" make it almost impossible to figure out where the situation stands. Add to that incomplete maintenance record entries, entries that are all but impossible to read, lost logbooks, and a host of other issues and there are a number of problems to contend with.

Configuration management of the aircraft is key to AD compliance. Most air carriers do a good job at this. The maintenance control group will know what equipment is installed and what the times are on each unit. Corporate aviation seems to have the best record for keeping track of their aircraft. In the past, the larger flight departments had the staff to maintain accurate records.

In general aviation, the situation is far worse. Many aircraft don’t have an accurate equipment list, and the owner doesn’t want to spend the money to have the maintenance shop develop one. In the current economic downturn there will be pressure to do more with less.

It is natural to want to cut costs in an effort to improve profits. Corporate flight departments are being downsized, and the individual aircraft owner is being squeezed even tighter to maintain their aircraft.

Maintenance professionals need to keep their guard up so as not to be lulled into reducing the level of compliance. Remember, the FARs are a minimum standard and a higher level of safety should be achievable.

Much of what happened at Southwest was due to individuals within the airline willing to gamble the lives of their passengers for short-term financial gain. These individuals conspired with FAA inspectors to circumvent the regulations.

While most maintenance professionals are professional and demonstrate ethical behavior, it is obvious from this incident that there are those that don’t subscribe to the same ethics. It is the responsibility of everyone to beware of colleagues or others that could jeopardize the safety of our air transportation system.

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