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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Editor’s Notebook: Hug a Fed

James T. McKenna

If you’re involved in any part of the U.S. civil industry, that headline got your attention. "Fed," as in a federal government employee — in this case, one for the FAA, is a term that can engender warm feelings among holders of airman, operator, and other certificates. Not warm and friendly feelings, but ones ranging from indigestion to steam blowing out your ears.

Such feelings toward the aviation agency are not without justification. There is ample evidence of FAA officials acting capriciously, playing favorites, ignoring obvious operational and bureaucratic obstacles and glaring safety problems, and choking worthy commercial endeavors with red tape. The agency’s ongoing support of commercial airlines’ lobbying campaign to foist — through new user fees — an unfair share of the cost of the U.S. air traffic and regulatory systems on general aviation is just the latest high-level example of its misbehavior.

FAA employees rarely get recognized by the agency for extra efforts to boost aviation safety. They’re just as likely to get rebuked.

Despite all that evidence, I’ll argue that we should occasionally say thank you to the good guys in the FAA. There are good guys out there. I’ll tell you of one.

More than 10 years ago, writing for a different magazine, I got a phone call from a repair-station mechanic. His employer had been implicated in the crash of a DC-9 in Florida. All 110 people on board were killed. The crash was in the news continually. This mechanic said that lapses cited by crash investigators were continuing in his shop; it was only a matter of time, he felt, before the next crash. I spent hours on the phone with the guy. In some conversations, he was in tears. Should he tell the FAA his story of maintenance and inspections signed off when it was clear the tools, procedures, and equipment needed to do those jobs wasn’t available — what is called "pencil-whipping"?

He’d never been in this position, and didn’t know what to do, I’d never been in the position, but I knew mechanics who had. So I gave him my best read on the situation. If you want something done, I told him, don’t call the FAA, call the U.S. Transportation Dept.’s inspector general (whose investigators were like pit bulls).

If you call the FAA, I told him, this is what will probably happen. The agency will tell the company an inspector is coming to check out a complaint. The inspector won’t be circumspect and he won’t fish. He’ll ask only about specific jobs on specific aircraft. Since you already raised issues about those jobs inside the company, they’ll know you called the FAA, and you’ll be blackballed. Since you were involved in some of them and you didn’t lie down on the hangar floor and declare, "This airplane is going out the door over my dead body," the FAA will charge you, and maybe only you, with violating your solemn oath as a mechanic.

That’s not a knock on FAA inspectors. It reflects a couple of realities under which they work, which I explained to him. One, they don’t get paid overtime to check out the graveyard shift or complete the piles of paperwork needed to prosecute violations of air regulations. The FAA hasn’t had the budget for that for years. So they have to do that on their own time.

Two, even if the inspector puts that time in, FAA lawyers (who do the prosecuting) aren’t likely to back him up; they’ll bargain with the company. A worker or two may be sacrificed, but the company will face a meaningless fine it might never pay.

This mechanic heeded none of my advice, and lucky for air safety he didn’t. He drew an FAA inspector who proved me completely wrong. That inspector, a guy named Robert Lee Cunningham, completed the piles of paperwork. He picked apart the company’s arguments. He identified the pencil-whipping personnel. He got FAA lawyers to join the fight, which they all saw through to the end. The pencil-whippers lost their certificates, as did the company; Cunningham’s efforts forced its shutdown.

On top of all that, the whistle-blowing mechanic was vindicated. (He was still blackballed; I don’t believe he worked in aviation again. Fortunately, the amusement park industry needs sheet-metal, electrical, hydraulic, and pneumatic skills an ex-aviation mechanic possesses.)

There are others like that, including a fair share in rotorcraft at the FAA. Take, for example, those who are supporting the International Helicopter Safety Team’s activities and those who have worked over the last three years with the emergency medical services sector to address safety problems.

The Cunninghams of the FAA rarely get recognized by the agency for their extra efforts to boost aviation safety. They are just as likely to get rebuked for rocking the boat. In some cases, their integrity is questioned. That doesn’t have to happen much more than once before a reasonable person will ask himself why he is accepting below-industry-scale pay for extra headaches, cheaper benefits, and added abuse. Then the agency loses a good guy.

So if you come across feds who go the extra mile, you don’t have to hug them. But shake their hands. Buy them a coffee or a beer. Say thanks. Just don’t tell their boss.

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