Aircraft Accidents and the ASAP

Opened in July 1936, New York City’s Triboro Bridge was designed to access three New York City boroughs: Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx.  Originally called, simply, the ‘Triboro Bridge’, it is now named the ‘RFK Triboro Bridge’, or, affectionately called by today’s New Yorkers, ‘Aaaaaaaahhh! No-o-o-o-o!!’  It was funded by interest-bearing bonds, issued by the Triborough Bridge Authority itself, and secured by revenues from future tolls.  The point of my history lesson?  The construction bill for the Bridge has been paid many times over, yet the tolls remain and, in fact, rise on a regular basis.  That is because as time marched on, bureaucracies were reluctant to change what paid money.  Politicians and bureaucrats invented ways for accepted practices to remain the same.  It was, essentially, a shell game; a flimflam.

I have been writing about the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), its compliance philosophy (CP) and the CP’s safety programs.  Last week I wrote about the voluntary disclosure reporting program (VDRP).  Today, the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) concludes this ‘series’; it draws the elements of how the FAA has assumed a hands-off approach to regulating, relying heavily on Industry to police itself.

The ASAP was introduced as an answer to the Safety Conference of January 1995.  Originally instituted in Advisory Circular (AC) 120-66 in January 1966, (revised twice in March 2000 and November 2002) the ASAP brought about common sense solutions to pressing problems.  For instance, pilots were deviating from their assigned altitudes, like overshot or undershot altitudes.  According to US Air’s Altitude Awareness Program, several causes of altitude deviations were identified, such as: crew distractions, improper altimeter settings or Air Traffic Control (ATC) operational errors.  Common sense solutions were introduced, e.g. assigning which pilot makes altitude adjustments; pilots verbally challenging each other for new settings and readbacks to/from ATC.

These were excellent advances in safety; simple, yet smart.  Such ASAP successes were an example of how the program could work with the team cooperation of the certificate holder, the FAA, the workforce and, in some cases, the labor unions.  Sensible results have been implemented successfully into other air carriers’ programs.  FAA-approved ASAPs are for air carriers flying under Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 121 (Domestic, Flag and Supplemental Operations) part 135 (Commuter and On Demand Operations) and Domestic Part 145 (Repair Stations).  Other certificate holders can apply, but are chosen on a case-by-case basis, to see if the processes can be adapted.  ASAPs are adopted voluntarily by the certificate holder, the FAA and other suitable parties.  The parties are held to a written agreement called a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that spells out the ASAP’s purpose, terms, procedures and who the parties are.  The MOU is the contract between all parties that determines how the gravity of safety issues will be resolved and how the issues will be reconciled.

Once adopted, the ASAP generates an Event Review Committee (ERC); this group is responsible for establishing what safety issues qualify for an ASAP investigation.  Types of reports excluded from the ASAP process, include: intentional disregard of safety; criminal activity; repeated violations or reports of an employee when NOT acting as an employee, e.g. an arrest while on personal time.

The ASAP report ‘will not be used to initiate or support any company disciplinary action, or as evidence for any purpose in an FAA enforcement action …’

As per AC 120-22B, ‘The ERC will:

  • Review and analyze reports submitted under the ASAP
  • Determine whether such reports qualify for inclusion
  • Identify actual or potential problems from the information contained in the reports, and
  • Propose solutions for those problems.

The ASAP policy was a proactive approach to aviation safety; it took the best of both worlds – industry and regulatory – and put them in a room together to brainstorm the biggest problems, develop solutions and implement them.

Like any policy, the intent of the program does not always translate through time.  The FAA of 2018 is not the FAA of 1995; industry’s safety hurdles have changed.  The focuses have realigned; in the wake of complacency, proactive has been replaced by reactive.

As mentioned in my previous articles: Aircraft Accidents and the FAA Compliance Philosophy Parts I and II, the FAA’s compliance philosophy has altered the administration’s approach to aviation safety, from a regulatory proactive mind-frame to a behaviorist ‘study-of-the-human-condition’ reactive mind-frame.  The new FAA philosophy premiered in 2015.  Twenty years earlier, in 1995, the Aviation Safety Action Program was introduced, when the FAA maintained a regulator-to-regulated relationship with industry.  The VDRP, itself, came about in 1992, leading the way for ASAP in the quest for sparking positive changes in aviation.  Between 1992 and 2015, important changes took place.

When the Aviation Safety Action Program premiered, the aviation accident rate was higher than it is today in both general and commercial aviation.  Since then, improvements made in safety promoted a false sense of security; aviation’s ‘safest years’ fed a complacency that said, “We’ve fixed safety; it is time to relax our guard.”

In the 1990s through the early 2000s, airlines were no strangers to mergers and their cultural effects, e.g. FedEx and Flying Tiger; US Air and Piedmont; American and TWA; America West and US Air.  Many operators either went bankrupt or their routes were absorbed by international airlines, e.g. Eastern, Pan Am, Frontier.  These drastic changes in corporate cultures, job actions and job losses, contributed to the need for a program like the ASAP.  The change in merging cultures demanded that programs like ASAP and VDRP kept the air carriers’ feet to the right path.

It is important to add the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  The aviation industry was specifically targeted by the terrorists and required re-evaluations of how everything in the industry was done, from repairs to background checks.  Funding previously allocated to oversight accomplished by aviation regulators was now shared with Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration.

Soon, digital technologies replaced analog technologies, one-for-one.  New advances in composites, non-destructive testing and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles eased into the industry, eventually exploding across the aviation community.  Finally, the introduction of commercial space flight and computerized air traffic control added to the FAA’s responsibility and workload.  The aviation industry changed almost overnight.

Then, after 2015, the FAA changed in two distinct ways: the compliance philosophy, aka the FAA’s culture, was rewritten, and the FAA started to conduct a multi-year reorganization.  The compliance philosophy’s main culture changed: the FAA aviation safety inspector (ASI) became restricted in how they regulated.  No longer regulators, ASIs were now behaviorists.  Their mission?  Understanding bad behavior, not preventing it.  At the ERC, the FAA no longer represented the ‘Word of Authority’.  Instead, the ASI became a referee, a kindly uncle whose authority became a shadow of its former self.

Will programs, like ASAP and voluntary disclosure, survive the transition into the new philosophy? With the FAA’s reorganization, the new environment may not cultivate the programs to survive.  For instance, the reorganization further confused the lines between Headquarters and the individual FAA Regions.  After two years, FAA Flight Standards District offices still don’t know how to find answers or even where to look.  The air carriers’ certificate management offices, caught up in the confusion of the reorganization, are not paying necessary attention to proven programs, e.g. the ASAP.

Just like the Triboro Bridge tolls, bureaucratic organizations are reluctant to change what should be changed, even while in the midst of complete overhaul.  Perhaps the illusion of not upsetting the balance makes transition smoother.  But, for who? And for how long before the shell game is revealed for what it is?  A flimflam.

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