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Monday, May 5, 2008

FAA Troubles Threatens New Safety Regime

The FAA has been moving slowly in the direction of giving airlines more responsibility in ensuring safety and is now following Canada’s lead in its desire to implement Safety Management Systems (SMS) at aircraft operators. Related Story  For SkyWest, the implementation of SMS is a leap forward. The airline is in the middle of incorporating SMS into its operation.
“While there is no requirement for it yet, the philosophy has sound components,” SkyWest President Chip Childs told Regional Aviation News during a recent interview. “We work closely with the FAA. We are always evolving to stay ahead of the game. It enhances safety. Tthe industry is very good at data collection, but then what you do with the data is important. SMS centralizes the function and helps you analyze and evaluate the risks. It also works to find the root causes and evaluate them in light of some of the risk profiles. In that way, it is not just safety but shows you how you can be more efficient as well. SMS is collaborative but all the responsibility resides with the company. The key is risk assessment, evaluating the risk and that tells you where to focus your efforts.”
SkyWest has developed a more open relationship with the FAA in terms of self disclosure. “We not only give them access to our safety data but they have given us significant access to their data over the last seven to eight months,” said Childs. “The FAA shares data on the whole industry. Not just accident data, but data on key risks. We’ve come to a point where we have very consistent evaluation and have come to the same conclusion on not only what is happening and what the cause is but what the fix is and how that fix works out.”
He cautioned that SMS will likely be more costly than having the FAA do its traditional audit. “However,” he said, “it will be more efficient and effective. Over all it is a very good pro-active approach.”

Political Fallout
But the uproar over FAA safety lapses at Southwest and American may threaten the agency’s ability to move further on giving airlines more responsibility, something the press and Congress is already howling about. But budgetary realities and inspector shortages really mean that increasing reliance on databases and operators is really the only way the job will get done.
The agency recently announced a workforce plan, which the agency said, is designed to meet the challenges posed by new aircraft types, changing business models and the increasing globalization of the aviation industry. But its modest one to two percent growth will hardly address the overwhelming demand on the 4,000 safety inspectors especially since only 586 are scheduled to join the inspector corps by 2017.
The agency admits the workforce plan is based on an evolving philosophy emphasizing continual improvement in operations and processes. It increases use of the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) system, which lets users benefit from an extensive warehouse of safety data, as SkyWest’s Child’s indicated. The plan also is keyed to adoption of a Safety Management System to move the FAA from an after-the-fact-investigative method of improving safety to a preventive approach using risk-based identification of possible hazards.
Regardless of the political fallout, FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell told a Senate panel during hearings on the subject recently that the partnership the FAA has forged with airlines must be maintained. "If we return to the 'gotcha' approach of decades past ... I think we risk driving these safety issues underground,” he said, in response to lawmaker and DOT inspector general calls for an overhaul of FAA’s system for allowing airlines to voluntarily report safety violations. It was these same lawmakers who diligently fought for the restoration of the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service (NAOMS) pilot survey when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration threatened to kill it last year. Lawmakers cited it as an invaluable tool in spotting negative safety trends.
Since the mid-1990s, when a series of major and regional accidents forced a re-examination of how safety is improved, the FAA, along with other safety experts such as the National Transportation Safety Board, has been working toward the development of pro-active safety mechanisms rather than relying on accidents to uncover new methods to improve aviation safety. It has slowly built on such initiatives as the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), which encourages aviation employees to voluntarily report safety information that may be critical to identifying potential precursors to accidents. ASAP is coupled with the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), which prioritizes inspector work assignments using the Air Carrier Assessment tools to assess the risks associated with each component of an air carrier's operation. The two programs are also linked to the Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) which collects and analyzes digital flight data generated during normal operations. These programs provide greater insight into the total flight operations environment, providing objective information otherwise unavailable. The information and insights provided by FOQA can improve safety by significantly enhancing training effectiveness, operational, maintenance and engineering, and air traffic control procedures. In addition, the FAA uses the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (VDRP) which provides incentives for an FAA-regulated entity to voluntarily identify, report, and correct instances of regulatory noncompliance. The program allows the FAA to oversee and participate in the root-case analysis of the events leading to the violations and approves, and oversees corrective actions and conducts follow-up surveillance.
Despite the massive criticism it has received this approach must be having some impact since a recent audit indicated that there was 99 percent compliance with safety mandates, the agency said.
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