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Monday, September 15, 2008

FAA Air Safety Reforms Ordered

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to implement safety recommendations advanced by an Independent Review Team (IRT) formed in the wake of the Southwest Airlines maintenance snafu. However, the team found that airlines are 98 percent compliant with Airworthiness Directives (ADs) during in more than 5,600 audits of ADs at U.S. air carriers, Acting Administrator Robert A. Sturgell said.
In the remaining two percent of the audits, the carriers resolved noncompliance issues before the airplanes flew again. Alleged noncompliance in the audits fell into five categories: instances where the air carrier could not show compliance with the AD; cases where additional records were needed to prove compliance; cases where the air carrier did the work, but had to apply for an alternate means of compliance approval; situations where the AD work was not done, but the airplane was not flying; other minor discrepancies not involving ADs. FAA is investigating to determine if enforcement actions are warranted.
Acting Administrator Sturgell also gave a progress report on new safety initiatives announced in April:
• Safety Issues Reporting System — Complete
• Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program Approvals — Complete
• Ethics Policy Enhancement — In progress; proposed rule expected next summer
• Aviation Safety and Analysis Sharing Program expansion — In progress
• Independent Review Team — Complete; with Secretary Peters for review
• Airworthiness Directive Review — In progress
Perhaps the most important aspect of its report is citing the value of the various FAA voluntary reporting systems which came under fire during the spring. Related Story However, the report did not address one of the things that really sticks in the industry’s craw – the lack of uniform standards in interpreting the federal aviation regulations. Related Story

Peters said the team’s report confirms the basic approach to aviation safety in the United States is sound, but that there are ways to make the system even safer. She said the 13 recommendations in the report “will improve both the intensity and the integrity of the FAA’s safety program.”

The FAA will have guidance in place by the end of the year to ensure that airworthiness directives and their deadlines are fully understood by FAA officials and airlines.

The IRT recommended new safeguards against FAA personnel developing “overly cozy” relationships with the airlines they regulate through regular audits of field offices where the managerial team has been in place for more than three years. “The intent is clear: make sure everyone understands that the only customer that matters in the end is the flying public,” Peters said.

The FAA will also come up with the proper balance between the time inspectors spend inputting and analyzing data provided by the airlines and the time they actual spend in the hangers inspecting jetliners. “Understanding safety data is essential, but making sure it is accurate is vital,” said Peters.

One recommendation called for more rigorous and systematic oversight of the FAA’s voluntary disclosure program. The FAA has changed its procedures to require senior managers to review voluntary disclosure reports. The FAA also will implement use of a new automated data system to help track and ensure compliance.

The FAA came under attack in April when whistleblowers testified before a congressional panel that Southwest Airlines allowed over 100 of its planes to fly in violation of regulations, with FAA complicity. Southwest still faces a $10.2 million fine. The FAA then launched a special airworthiness directive compliance audit in which problems arose at American Airlines.

“The grounding of American’s MD-80 fleet came only days after the April 3 congressional hearing into the Southwest non-grounding—which has led many to suggest that the FAA over-reacted, and that the disruption to American’s schedule was unnecessary,” the IRT report said. “The combination of these events, and the extraordinary coincidences in term of timing, produced, for the FAA, a perfect storm. First the agency was broadly accused and roundly condemned for having slipped into excessively cozy relationships with industry. Then, within days, it was accused of acting in an unusually harsh and legalistic manner, causing severe disruption and economic damage.

“It is certainly plausible, given these conflicting criticisms and intense scrutiny, that some FAA staff might have felt for a while disoriented, or that different parts of the agency could have reacted by pulling in different directions,” the report continued. “But this rather intense squall now seems to have mostly subsided. The task for the IRT relates less to determining what happened within the squall, and has more to do with helping the FAA emerge from its buffeting facing the right direction, set steadfastly on the best possible long-term course, and poised to advance flight safety in the most efficacious way possible.”

The Flight Safety Foundation applauded the work of the Independent Review Team. "We've been arguing that the current approach to aviation safety in the United States is working and is a model for civil aviation authorities around the world," noted FSF President and CEO William R. Voss. "But that doesn't mean that there shouldn't be occasional reviews to see if there are ways to make the FAA safety programs even more effective. These recommendations from the Independent Review Team are solid and should be implemented."

The Air Transport Association of America (ATA) said “We are delighted that the Independent Review Team acknowledged the progress achieved through FAA-industry collaboration. In particular, we are pleased that they recognized the value of voluntary reporting programs and their important contribution to safety. The report reinforces what NTSB data shows – the U.S. airline industry’s commitment to safety is unwavering. At the same time, we recognize that there is always room for improvement and we will work with the FAA to adopt the team’s suggestions.”

Members of the Independent Review Team included: Ed Stimpson, who served as chair, J. Randolph Babbitt, William O. McCabe, Malcolm K. Sparrow and Carl W. Vogt.

Side Bar: Recommendations
The IRT’s 13 aviation safety recommendations have all been accepted by the FAA and are being implemented. They include:

Recommendation 1: The FAA should retain the right to ground any plane not in compliance with an applicable AD. Inspectors should not be required or expected to conduct any type of risk-assessment before taking action on AD non-compliance.

Recommendation 2: The FAA should provide timely information about new AD requirements, in advance of compliance dates, to all relevant FAA field offices. Those offices should then be responsive to any carrier that requests assistance in the form of progress-towards-compliance audits or reviews, in advance of the AD compliance dates.

Recommendation 3: The FAA’s Voluntary Programs are vitally important to the future of aviation safety, and should be retained.

Recommendation 4: The FAA must abide by the rules circumscribing these programs in order to prevent the erosion of compliance.

Recommendation 5: Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (VDRP) data have not been routinely analyzed at a higher level within the FAA. There are two quite different purposes for such analysis, both of which the FAA should formally recognize.

Recommendation 6: The number of voluntary disclosures made by a regulated entity is a composite measure, and should not be used either as a performance metric or as a risk factor, in any context.

Recommendation 7: It is clear to the IRT that participation in all of the voluntary disclosure programs is dependent on the assurance of confidentiality for information submitted. The IRT believes the FAA should resist any efforts to relax or eliminate any restrictions on disclosure.

Recommendation 8: The FAA should explicitly focus on wide divergences in regulatory ideologies, where they exist, as a source for potentially serious error.

Recommendation 9: Training for managers and principal inspectors should explicitly cover the management of contrasting regulatory views within the workforce, methods for moderating extremes in regulatory style, and methods for optimizing the regulatory effectiveness and coherence across a diverse team of inspectors.

Recommendation 10: The FAA should deploy the Internal Assistance Capability (IAC), recently established, to review the composition and conduct of any offices or teams identified under recommendation one above.

Recommendation 11: The FAA should also deploy the IAC on a routine basis to review the culture and conduct of any CMO where the managerial team has remained intact for more than three years.

Recommendation 12: The IRT would urge the FAA to embrace its own operational role in risk identification and risk mitigation as formally and energetically as it has embraced its role in overseeing industry’s SMS implementations; and to expedite its implementation planning in this area.

Recommendation 13: We recommend that without delay the FAA commission a time-and-motion study of its front-line inspection operation, to empirically assess the time-demands of ATOS and other IT implementations. With the results of such a study in hand, agency leadership should establish some clear expectations regarding the proportion of an inspector’s work-week that data-entry, data-analysis, and other computer-related tasks should reasonably consume, and monitor progress towards more reasonable ratios as ATOS and other IT systems are improved over time.
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