Aircraft Accidents and the FAA Compliance Philosophy, Part Two

Many write, e.g. books, articles, blogs, to pass on some experience or knowledge, while others push an agenda, either political or ideological.  I attempt to put common sense into words, employing what I have seen in my aviation career to support my views; I try not to be cynical, yet, sometimes, that does bleed through.  Every so often, disaster appears imminent; like an aviation Paul Revere, I must voice.

A friend of mine with a Doctorate in Human Factors praised the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for its Compliance Philosophy (FAACP).  He is a most qualified authority on Human Behavior; he works for the FAA and likes the less aggressive approach the FAA is taking to Enforcement, that the FAACP portrays a more ‘kinder, gentler FAA’.  In fairness, he never worked as an FAA aviation safety inspector (ASI); he is a subject matter expert (SME) on events after they have happened, like an accident or regulatory violation.  He praises the FAACP because FAA ASIs now focus on a Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) violator’s Behavior, first, and the violator’s enforcement consequences, second.

When I investigated aircraft accidents for the National Transportation Safety Board, I often interviewed aircraft mechanics; I found a certificate holder’s Culture had much to do with the accident’s cause.  Tantamount to Culture being important were Human Behavior issues, e.g. loss of a spouse, sick child; and Human Factor issues, e.g. workplace lighting or sleep patterns.  Even though I had a Graduate Degree with a minor in Human Factors, I was never the authority my aforementioned friend is.  In all the interviews I conducted, I always followed the lead of accident investigators with Doctorates in Human Behavioral Studies for accuracy, knowledge and the right answers.

This is a critical point; in these interviews, my strength was in my familiarity with how aviation industry cultures worked.  Unearthing deep-rooted problems with Human Factors and Human Behavior issues did not fall to me; they were well beyond my capacity.  In the FAA’s adopted FAACP found at https://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/cp/ Generally, if you are qualified and both willing and able to cooperate, FAA will resolve the issue with compliance tools, techniques, concepts, and programs. Only on discovery of behavior indicating an unwillingness or inability to comply, or evidence that, for example, supports an intentional deviation, reckless or criminal behavior, or other significant safety risk, does FAA consider an individual ineligible for a Compliance Action.”  This sounds like the FAA expects its ASIs to be Behavioral specialists, not enforcers of the regulations.  Are FAA ASIs being trained to recognize behavior issues?  If so, how are they being trained?  Why steer away from enforcement?

In reality, that’s not how FAA oversight works.  It requires experienced ASIs to conduct quality oversight, recognizing, then rooting out problems to avoid accidents, e.g. Cultural and Systemic Problems.  FAA ASIs are sworn to uphold strong principles; they take an oath to do their best to keep the skies safe.  FAA ASIs are not Behaviorists; their duty is to Safety, not psychoanalysis.

This well-intentioned Philosophy, the FAACP, is weighed down with three obvious problems.  First – the wording is ambiguous.  When does unacceptable behavior become so egregious as to reach the point of action?  How much must safety be compromised before the FAA Administrator approves action?

Second – as per https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/49/44701 the FAACP defies Law 49 of the United States Code 44701: (a) (2) (A):

(a) Promoting Safety.—The Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall promote safe flight of civil aircraft in air commerce by prescribing

(2) Regulations and Minimum Standards in the interest of safety for—

(A) inspecting, servicing, and overhauling aircraftaircraft engines, propellers, and appliances”

And, (5) “Regulations and Minimum Standards for other practices, methods, and procedure the Administrator finds necessary for safety in air commerce and national security.”

Though the Law does not dictate how the regulations are to be enforced, the Law does not allow for anything less than Safety first, “The Administrator shall carry out this chapter in a way that best tends to reduce or eliminate the possibility or recurrence of accidents in air transportation.”

Third – the FAA ASIs are not certified in Human Behavioral Studies; most have never taken Psychology or Behavioral Studies courses … period.  FAA ASIs do not practice Psychology.  The reason why is because FAA ASIs are professional aviation people, whether Airworthiness, Operations, Flight Attendants, Air Traffic Controllers, etc. with years of aviation experience and training.  Their specialty is aviation, not people’s feelings or intentions.

Furthermore, the FAA does NOT provide training in these specialties; this is the most important point to be made regarding the FAACP.  The average FAA ASI’s strength lies in familiarity with the Aviation Industry and the professionals’ responsibilities who work in that industry.  The FAA ASI’s priority is not always WHY the mechanic, pilot, etc. is unsafe; the FAA ASI answers the question of HOW the mechanic, pilot, etc. is unsafe.  Isn’t intent a question for a lawyer; a question best answered by a Human Performance, Human Factors or Psychologist SME who has been trained to look for these answers?

In 2005, Northwest Airlines experienced a strike by its aircraft mechanics and cleaners.  The FAA reacted by increasing on-site surveillance and auditing, assuring safety was not compromised, that no one took advantage of the job action.  FAA Order 8900.1 Volume 3, Chapter 28, Section 1, speaks to reasons for the FAA increasing surveillance, e.g. significant employee turnover, financial problems, mergers and strikes.  The increased oversight did not question the integrity of the airline or the union members; it never asked ‘Why’ (though the why was obvious).  The FAA’s response displayed confidence in its ASIs to prevent any unsafe acts by anyone at Northwest – for any reason – that would disrupt aviation safety.  Each individual ASI had the professional experience to recognize anything out of place, to prevent unsafe activities and to PROTECT the travelling public.

Last week I underscored a fact: the average FAA ASI is outnumbered by the aviation professionals it oversees, sometimes by more than one hundred to one.  Because of this disparity, many of the accidents, both major and ‘minor’, were not prevented due, in part, to an overwhelming number of certificate assignments.  We will never know how many accidents have been prevented by alert FAA ASIs conducting quality surveillance, noting what was out of compliance and effectively overseeing the operation … not each individual mechanic’s, pilot’s, etc. behavior.

When with the FAA’s Flight Standards Division, I got into a conversation with two lawyers concerning an air carrier’s refusal to follow its own approved weight and balance program.  Both lawyers supported the FAACP’s ‘Behavioral’ direction.  “How bad can it get,” one asked, somewhat arrogantly, “when an air carrier doesn’t follow its own procedures?”  I showed them pictures of National Airlines flight 102 B747, as it slammed into the ground in the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.  The B747 aircraft suffered from a load shift before crashing.  A Finding: the airline did not follow its own weight and balance procedures.

“That’s only one instance,” he replied.  I pulled up accident reports for Fine Air 101, April 7, 1997, in Miami, FL; Air Midwest 5481, January 8, 2003, in Charlotte, NC, and other operators’ aircraft accidents, each caused by a failure to follow weight and balance procedures.  “These,” I said, “were the ones that didn’t get away.  There are others – unreported – that could have been just as tragic.  Finally, there are many more that the FAA ASIs’ experience prevented.”

Weight and Balance procedures are a small slice of the Aviation Safety pie; there are Operations procedures, Maintenance procedures, contractor oversight, Repair Station Quality Control Manuals, Training, Fueling procedures, Parachute rigging procedures, testing qualifications, etc.  FAA ASIs must rely on their experience to pull many situations back from the brink; they must recognize tragedy in the making; they must use their knowledge and experience against overwhelming opposing numbers to protect the travelling public.  To redirect their efforts into dead end directions, e.g. behavior, is a waste of resources and a recipe for disaster.

Somebody must be benefiting from the FAACP, I do not know who.  Enforcements against violators of the FARs, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is an effective deterrent to repeat offenders.  Making FAA ASIs into psychoanalysts defeats their purpose.  The FAA ASI will become ineffective as a regulator and a safety advocate.  And, the aviation industry?  It becomes a danger to itself, unsafe, until someone reverses the direction.  Then the decades-long effort begins where the FAA must undo what it has done … and corrects itself.

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and the FAA Compliance Philosophy, Part Two”

  1. Extremely well said Steve! Thanks for your continual insight and informative articles! Fly safe! 🇺🇸

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