Aircraft Accidents and the FAA Compliance Philosophy, Part One

The Foucault (Foo-koh) pendulum’s continuous motion depends on two things: the Earth’s rotation and magnets at the pivot point.  Magnets maintain energy lost due to gravity, while the Earth’s rotation shifts the pendulum’s direction by a few degrees per hour as referenced to the floor.  At the pendulum’s lowest arc point, kinetic energy (energy in motion) is greatest.  However, at the arc’s end, potential energy (energy at rest) is greatest; this is also the exact point where direction changes due to influence from the Earth’s rotation.

I use this analogy to explain a greater issue, not one as subtle as the gentle nudging of Earth’s rotation.  Over the years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made changes in direction, some in response to negligible variations in the industry, e.g. response to some Safety Recommendations.  Other times the FAA makes grand gestures that define its overall mission, e.g. its Compliance Philosophy (CP).  This viewpoint outlines how the FAA conducts business, overseeing the aviation industry while maintaining safety.

The FAA Compliance Philosophy is the FAA’s Culture.

In 2015, the FAA adopted a new Compliance Philosophy, one that involves a ‘just culture’ that “has both an expectation of, and an appreciation for, self-disclosure of errors.”  The FAAST Team website: lays out the FAA’s CP, as, “Simply put, the goal of the Compliance Philosophy is to identify safety issues that underlie deviations from standards and correct them as effectively as possible.  To do this, the Compliance Philosophy embraces self-disclosure of errors.”

To be clear, self-disclosure is a tool the FAA employs with all that fall under its surveillance and Oversight.  It is a part of the safety process, not THE safety process.

To give perspective, one must analyze what the FAA faces in its day-to-day mission.  In the General Aviation world alone, hundreds of US FAA inspectors are responsible for several hundred thousand FAA designees, private pilots, air taxi operations, FAA-approved repair stations, mechanics, avionics technicians, medical helicopter operators, repairmen, designee engineers, fixed base operators, crop dusters, pilot schools, mechanic schools, balloonists, glider pilots, unmanned aerial vehicle operators and experimental aircraft operators around the world.

In the Air Carrier world, the numbers are just as skewed.  For instance, in 1982, an airline had 62 aircraft.  The FAA Certification management office (CMO) overseeing the airline had sixty inspectors in the three modes: Operations (Pilots), Airworthiness (Maintenance) and Avionics.  Since the airline was not flying international – at the time – the airplanes routed regularly into the hub airport.  Here the FAA could observe all the airplanes within a few days, while speaking to most, if not all, pilots and mechanics.

Today, thirty-six years later, the same airline has a fleet of hundreds of different model aircraft spread all around the world, flying 24/7, 365 days a year.  The FAA’s CMO has about eighty inspectors divided between management and the three specialties.  Access to all the aircraft is limited at best.  Operations, Airworthiness and Avionics inspectors cannot possibly see every one of the thousands of FAA-certified workers within a year’s time.  Notwithstanding, the thousands of contract maintenance personnel, their management teams, manuals and procedures responsible for performing maintenance on that one airline’s aircraft throughout the world are not even included in that number.

The FAA’s limits include time and distance.  The FAA’s efficiency is limited by the scheduled hours the inspectors can work – the Department of Transportation does not pay overtime.  Budgeting for international trips is cut to the bare minimum, even domestic trips are limited.  Available manpower is inadequate, e.g. in the aforementioned CMO, only twenty Airworthiness inspectors are responsible for thousands of mechanics and their training, manuals, spot checks, engineering modifications, aircraft damage, support personnel, enforcement misdemeanors, accident investigations and paperwork.  The average FAA-inspector works a Monday through Friday schedule, 8:00 to 4:30 in its respective time zone.  Some FAA-inspectors drive hundreds of miles to conduct surveillance on their certificate holders.  Add sick time, vacations, training, holidays and all the risk analysis reports that the inspectors are required to file and track.

This is an accurate view of how the FAA/Industry relationship works.  This is not to garner sympathy for the FAA Inspector – no, no, no.  Instead, it paints a picture of how the numbers play out, how disproportionate the relationship truly is.

As per FAA NOTICE 8900.323, the role of the FAA aviation safety inspector (ASI) was changed; the ASI’s responsibility went from a regulator to a behaviorist.  Adopted as FAA policy in September 2015 and superseded by FAA ORDER 8900.323, the FAA ASI ends up not enforcing the regulations each ASI has sworn to uphold.  Instead, each ASI has been tasked with analyzing each aviator’s behavior and judge their safety violations by their objective, whether intentional or ignorant.  The average FAA ASI is no longer a safety advocate, an enforcer of the regulations.  The average FAA ASI is now a psychologist; analysts of might be, not enforcers of must be.

The FAAST Team website goes on, “[The CP] involves collaborating with the aviation community to share information about safety issues that underlie deviations from standards.  Errors must be identified, reported and analyzed in a non-blaming manner so that appropriate remedial or system-wide corrective action can be taken based on the specific facts and circumstances of each case.”

It is common sense: FAA-inspectors must move away from the laptop, put down the checklist and do what they do best: observe … and when something is wrong, take action; hard action, if need be.  The FAA inspectors must be empowered to act with integrity for the safety of the flying public.  In the world of aviation safety, the term: ‘non-blaming manner’ makes zero sense.  It is a politically correct buzz-word that has no place in the proactive action of saving lives.  By abiding by this word salad of seemingly impressive terms, the FAA makes itself irrelevant.

In every industry there are the ‘mistake makers’, those who unintentionally act unsafely, who would benefit from extra training or a wrist-slapping.  On the other hand, there are many parties in aviation who know the system very well; they know how to avoid the cameras, can outrun the regulators and know how to hide their transgressions in plain sight.  In an industry that carried 965 million passengers last year, this is not a trivial point.  It is a fact that this is a problem; it cannot be stopped without constructive oversight, surveillance and legitimate – firm, but fair – consequences for violators.

Inspectors are spread thin today, as demonstrated by the above paragraphs.  They need cooperation from industry with a ‘trust yet validate’ relationship.  Opportunities to find safety issues are limited.  My classes are populated with stories by former inspectors/instructors about the successful landing that could have been a disaster; how months of investigating brought down a safety violator providing bad parts to airlines; concerning the accidents that required deeper analysis for the true cause.

Isn’t treating every safety event as an ‘unintentional error’ or a ‘behavioral issue’ trivializing the incredible safety dangers the flying public is being subjected to?  By turning repeat offenders of the Federal Aviation Regulations into truant children in need of a time-out, won’t the unseen safety violations soon outnumber the findings?  By tying the hands of ASIs and limiting their ability to conduct valuable oversight and surveillance, then enforcing what they find, aren’t we, in our complacency, heading for aviation safety upsets to eclipse anything in the past?

This is the change in direction the FAA has taken.  The swing of the pendulum determines whether the aviation industry either moves forward or slides backward, nudged by influential forces.  Next week we will look deeper into the FAA’s Compliance Philosophy and the true effect in and on the Aviation Industry.

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