In this month’s Lessons Unlearned XXXIV article, Avianca flight 52’s Root Cause was examined. More important was a discussion on how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) moved proactively to improve international aviation safety, worldwide. During the January 1990 accident’s investigation, while the National Transportation Safety Board worked its Probable Guess on why Avianca 52 ran out of fuel (HINT: the engines burned the fuel up in flight), the FAA began an aggressive campaign to correct the international air carrier industry’s ability to keep air travelers safe. The FAA corrected for decades old laws written in the pre-jet days of the Douglas DC-6, before international passenger travel took off.
Why couldn’t the FAA prevent the Avianca 52 accident; it happened in the United States (US)? The short answer: the FAA did not have the authority, the power to tell another country’s oversight agencies how to manage their country’s air carriers, especially countries who were Members of ICAO … yet.
Who or what is ICAO? Briefly, in 1944, the US hosted fifty-five States (for clarity, a ‘State’ will be referred to as a ‘Country’) in Chicago. The Chicago Convention addressed travel in the post-World War II era. From this convention, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was established. ICAO, per the icao.int website, “works with the [Chicago] Convention’s 193 Member States and industry groups to reach consensus on international civil aviation Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and policies in support of a safe, efficient, secure, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible civil aviation sector. These SARPs and policies are used by ICAO Member States to ensure that their local civil aviation operations and regulations conform to global norms …”
How, from the ashes of Avianca flight 52, did the FAA improve on international safety? Three important results of the Avianca 52 accident:
1) The International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) is a program established by the FAA in 1992. The program was designed to evaluate the ability of a Country’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) or other regulatory body to adhere to international aviation SARPs for personnel licensing, aircraft operations and aircraft airworthiness. Most important, the IASA program allowed the FAA to audit other country’s CAAs, to assure they were performing quality oversight of their air operators. The IASA program allowed other countries to audit foreign operators entering their respective country.
2) The ICAO Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP) was developed. USOAP is an ICAO program which was launched in January 1999; ICAO would perform audits of the various Member Contracting Countries’ compliance with all ICAO Annexes – except for Annexes 9 Facilitation and 17 Security. A Member Contracting Country is a country that belongs to/who has followed rules founded in the 1944 Chicago Convention.
3) A revision to ICAO Annex 1 Personnel Licensing for the establishment of minimum English Proficiency for pilots and air traffic controllers. One major issue in Avianca flight 52 was communication; the flight crews’ descent into confused English when talking to Air Traffic Control.
The Avianca flight 52 accident also highlighted the importance of establishing a legal means for a Contracting Country to delegate its oversight responsibilities to another Contracting Country with the finalization of ICAO Article 83 bis, June 1997. This determined the responsibilities for oversight functions between the two Countries in an agreement: The Country of Registry (where the aircraft is registered) and the Country of the Operator (where the aircraft is operated from; the air carrier’s home).
A US-based air carrier, e.g. Delta or FedEx (Country of Operator), can register their aircraft in a country where they operate flights, e.g. Canada or Japan (Country of Registry). The airline can also have maintenance performed in that country of registry.
During the period of Avianca 52’s investigation, the FAA’s Assistant Administrator, Anthony Broderick, moved to ensure foreign air operators flying into the US were in compliance with ICAO standards as they related to that Country’s responsibilities towards their Air Operators. His push was met with heavy resistance, not only domestically, but on the international stage. Numerous groups within, and outside of the FAA, stated that Broderick’s mission was not legal because of sovereignty rights; that the FAA did not have the right to audit and determine if a sovereign Country was in compliance with ICAO. In fact, ICAO established the international air navigation standards, but ICAO had no regulatory authority.
Broderick was resolute. Using the Department of Transportation (DOT) Air Transport Agreement Article 6, and ICAO Articles 32 and 33, as the legal basis, he declared that the US did in fact have the right to expect Countries, from which all air operators flying to/from the US, had a CAA that was compliant with the ICAO Annex SARPS as contained in Annexes 1, 6, and 8. Pushback on CAA inspections from other Countries was met with Broderick’s response that no air operator from that protesting Country would be granted authority to operate to/from the US. That Country’s US operations would cease and desist.
Broderick’s aim was to assure that any foreign country’s air operator wanting to conduct commercial air operations to/from the US, must obtain two authorizations from the DOT:
a. Economic Authority from the Office of the Secretary of Transportation. ‘Economic’, in this case related to, “concerned with the organization of the money, industry and trade of a country.”
b. Safety authority from the FAA, commonly referred to as Part 129 Operation Specifications. Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 129 is referred to as Operations: Foreign Air Carriers and Foreign Operators of US Registered Aircraft Engaged in Common Carriage, which includes all rules found in this Part’s sections. The requesting air operator had to acquire Operations Specifications per Part 129.
Broderick’s team first visited other countries’ CAAs, where they found inefficient oversight agencies. The team discovered foreign operators, operating to/from the US, with either an ineffective CAA or a CAA in name only; there was inadequate staffing, technical knowledge and surveillance capabilities. The FAA did not expect to find air operators flying to/from US sovereign airspace with no certification or oversight from a Country’s CAA. These initial findings were found to be the norm, not the exception.
The next objective was to get approval for the IASAs and the USOAPs to raise the bar for foreign oversight agencies to become equal to or above the minimum standards established by the 1944 Chicago Convention. Both programs were designed to repair the years of neglect other countries had subjected their air operators to.
IASA focused on a Country’s ability – not the Air Carrier’s ability – to adhere to international aviation safety standards and recommended practices found in three very significant annexes: Annex 1 Personnel Licensing; Annex 6 Operation of Aircraft and Annex 8 Airworthiness of Aircraft to the International Convention on Civil Aviation.
Broderick established the legal basis for FAA policy for ensuring foreign air operators who requested economic authority to operate into the US. The FAA-founded IASA program was established in 1992. Details on the FAA IASA may be found here: www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/iasa
The failures that led to Avianca 52 became obvious to FAA Assistant Administrator Tony Broderick and his team shortly after the accident. If the Avianca tragedy had not happened or its evidence had not been recoverable, e.g. the airliner had crashed in the ocean, the shortcomings of Colombia’s CAA and countless other Countries’ oversight agencies and airlines may have remained unknown for decades.
However, the diligence of a select few at the FAA turned tragedy into a true learning moment. They acted when no one would act; found numerous safety failures where no other investigative or oversight agency would have looked. If not for the persistence of safety minded professionals, many thousands of passengers and flight crews may have died in accidents around the world, possibly for unknown reasons. These actions are why accidents are investigated. These actions also highlight the need for experienced individuals who know what to look for and how to fix the problems.