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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Heard in the Hallways: A Bad Year for U.S. Safety

2008 is already a bad year for aviation safety in the United States.

That may strike readers as a strange statement. The traditional measure of safety, certainly in the public mind, is accidents, and this year has not been exceptionally bad. Helicopter accidents continue at what appears to be a steady rate, but there have been no headline-grabbing airline crashes in the United States.

The damage that this year has brought, however, is to the underpinnings of the safety efforts that made the past several years among the safest ever for fixed-wing operations and have inspired the helicopter industry toward a similar achievement. The underpinnings at risk are the increasing and highly effective collaborative initiatives of FAA inspectors and aircraft operators

The utter failure of FAA oversight of maintenance at Southwest Airlines has wrought much of that damage. The decision of chief agency inspectors of that airline to allow Southwest to operate hundreds of flights in violation of airworthiness directives and attack other inspectors who challenged their actions is widely viewed as a despicable set of acts. But all FAA inspectors are being painted with that brush, prompting many of them to seek cover behind strict interpretations of Federal Aviation Regulations and pull back from any effort to work closely with operators to identify and fix safety problems. The flaw in this approach is that the FAA has never been effective in advancing safety by playing traffic cop.

The other danger lies in a court challenge of aviation safety action programs in the wake of a 2005 regional jet crash in Kentucky. Those programs are built on the assumption that airmen, operators and regulators can most effectively find and fix safety problems if a transgressor can come forward with details of the problem without fear of losing his or her livelihood. Such programs are widespread in airline operations, and the EMS operator STAT MedEvac and Era Helicopters have recently brought them into the helicopter world. They, too, have proven highly effective in advancing safety. They could be scuttled if participants fear their confidential dealings may one day have to be revealed in court.

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