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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Orphan Treatment

By Lee Benson

One of the companies that I consult with afforded me the opportunity to attend the recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Public Aircraft Forum held in Washington D.C., on November 30th and December 1st. The conference was well attended, with representatives of all the three letter organizations such as FAA, HAI, GSA, etc., as well as representation from commercial operators who contract to government, and government operators who own, operate and maintain their own fleets.

The conference was interesting and, yet, frustrating to me personally. The frustration comes from the board’s Chairperson, Deborah Hersman, who has referenced public aircraft operators as “orphans,” and in past published statements, associated them with children. This implies in my mind that regulatory agencies then become the adults in the relationship between the regulators and the regulated.

I reject this notion completely and without hesitation. In the area of safety, my experience—and I believe most aviation professionals would agree—that a coequal partnership between the operator and FAA leads to the proper safety relationship. Both sides must earn the respect of the other and proceed from that standpoint forward. I’ve seen the FAA and its inspectors on a few occasions try to become the “adult” in the conversation. Usually this breaks down into a “because I said so” position by the regulator. We all have history in our personal and professional lives on both sides of that conversation, and tell me again how well did that work? I truly believe that Hersman is sincere in her intellectual desire to do the right thing, but words have meanings—sometimes not well-expressed.

Board member Mark Rosekind asked several operators to express what was needed in the public aircraft community. Although the presenters provided a snapshot about what they do, I felt that no one really went on the offensive and said this is how we affect the lives of our constituents in a positive manner and here are some examples of why changes in the Public Operations rules will adversely affect our ability to perform for the “public good.”

John Allen, FAA’s Director of Flight Standards, gave an insightful, realistic description of the issues at hand from a positive perspective. It’s a rare day when I completely agree with anyone from the FAA. I was glad the meeting was indoors so that I didn’t feel the need for a lightning rod above my head.

I was also frustrated by the elephant in the room that nobody wanted to directly address—public aircraft operations as defined by public law are not under the preview of the FAA, and that will not change without Congressional action.

Furthermore, the scope of the conflicting interests and unintended consequences of trying to change this law without a great deal of attention to details by Congress is frightening. HAI President Matt Zuccaro put forth the idea of a working group to study this issue. I applaud his suggestion but remain very cautious of the amount of influence that commercial operators exert over HAI’s thinking when it comes to the operator’s position regarding making money.

There are commercial operators who feel that all public aircraft should be eliminated with the exception of combat aircraft in the military. There are public operators who feel they should be able to operate as a for-profit entity. They are both wrong.

So, if Zuccaro’s suggestion is followed and a study group is formed, what issues should be addressed? The way NTSB assigns accidents as public or civil needs to be addressed. I’ve written about this before, safety is defined by culture. Those operations that are government owned, maintained and operated should be assigned into one category. Those operations that are owned, maintained and operated by a contractor, for a government entity are a different culture and should be listed separately. All pilots who are compensated for flying an aircraft with passengers on board should be required to hold a commercial pilots certificate.

The argument that while you are flying an aircraft that your primary duty is your mission—whether it’s firefighting or police work, etc.—and that flying is secondary, is ludicrous. Today if you operate a non-certificated aircraft there is no requirement for an approved maintenance program.

Somehow there should be a structure in place that requires submittal of a program to the FAA or perhaps an independent entity that approves the program. In most instances this would be the manufacturer’s suggested maintenance program. For those aircraft where such guidance is not available, standard industry best practices would prevail. I could see the independent authority being the equivalent of a Designated Engineering Representative (DER) with a background in maintenance instead of engineering.

It’s a complicated subject, but thoughtful consideration could enhance public operations to the betterment of the crews involved and the public they serve.

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