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Friday, June 1, 2007

Editor's Notebook: A New Sheriff's Coming to Town

James T. McKenna

MID-APRIL BROUGHT ANOTHER session of Flight Safety International’s helicopter safety forum. There I heard typical conversations about the challenges of improving safety. Some struck me as outdated.

FlightSafety deserves credit for convening these annual events. They are indeed savvy business development opportunities for one of the oldest flight-training outfits. But they seem more than that. At them, operators and crewmembers argue for practical, cost-efficient solutions to training shortcomings. They are fairly frank about what needs to be done to improve safety — by the FAA, training vendors, operators, and pilots.

At this year’s forum, co-hosted y Rotor & Wing, there was much talk about what the FAA needs to do to address training shortfalls. You’ve heard it. You may have said it. "The FAA needs to mandate mission-specific training." "The FAA should mandate minimum instrument training for EMS operators." "The FAA should do this or that."

The days of FAA-mandated safety solutions are history. Aviation regulation is dead, at least as we have known it.

These struck me as obsolete. The days of FAA-mandated safety solutions are history. Aviation regulation is dead, at least as we have known it.

Aviation regulation has long worked like this: a safety problem is identified, a solution is developed, and the regulator crafts rules to mandate it. That process has served us well; it is a major reason that aviation is as safe as it is. But its day is done. It may take years to fade. But it is done.

There are many reasons why. Today, for instance, it can take years for new rules to be enacted, given the bureaucratic reviews and political coordination required and the likelihood of court challenges from those who feel harmed by the new regulatory requirements. The reviews, coordination, and court challenges all play important roles in fair federal regulation of an enterprise. But they don’t foster prompt and flexible responses to urgent safety matters. This is a key reason FAA officials say that safety shortcomings are better addressed in a collaborative fashion with industry than in a mandatory one.

But the real reason is money. The FAA doesn’t have the budget to hire enough "cops" to enforce rules in place now, let alone new ones. The agency has about 3,400 aviation safety inspectors. That’s 70 percent more than it had in 1978, when deregulation launched an era of explosive growth of U.S. airlines. Since then, the number of U.S. air carriers has jumped 3,100 percent. The number of air carrier aircraft alone has increased 630 percent. Airlines are just one slice of the workload for those inspectors, albeit the biggest and most visible. They also are responsible for the nation’s general-aviation aircraft, repair stations, flight schools, pilots, mechanics, and other certificate holders — those holding FAA certificates in the United States and those abroad.

FAA inspectors can’t handle the workload they have now, and there is no hope the agency will get money to hire enough to do so. No one in Washington, Republican or Democrat, is going to tell Americans they have to pay more taxes to increase the federal bureaucracy. So federal agencies, except those in national security and some parts of NASA, live on budgets that match inflation. That means the funds available to do their jobs — to replace retirees, hire new inspectors, and pay for inspection trips, for instance — shrink each year as the rising pay of workers with greater longevity and the cost of maintaining aging facilities and equipment eat up greater shares of their budgets. So the FAA moves inevitably toward the role of other regulators, like the Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Dept. It will set standards, occasionally audit compliance, fine transgressors, but largely leave enforcement up to the industry regulated.

In that case, the marketplace takes over for Uncle Sam; companies comply with the rules because they won’t be able to stay in business if they make drugs, food, or aircraft and flights that harm people. Does that produce a system as safe as it should be? No. But it produces the system the marketplace wants, because consumers vote with their pocket books (or tax payments).

So the burden will fall to the rotorcraft industry to determine how safe it wants to be. We’ve already seen moves in this direction. The FAA in 2005 adopted the Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) program, under which an approved company is empowered "to find compliance or conduct functions leading to the issuance of certificates or authorizations for any statutorily authorized function." Granted, ODA is just an extension of a designee system almost as old as aviation. But look for that extension to keep growing.

Want a taste of the future? Transport Canada is weighing a plan to have the Helicopter Assn. of Canada take over management of helicopter air carrier certificates (see page 10). It’s already transferred standardization, certification, and oversight of business aviation to the Canadian Business Aviation Assn.

So polish off your badges. A new sheriff’s coming to town, and it may be you.

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