U.S. air carriers will be prohibited from employing former FAA safety inspectors for a two-year period by terms of a final rule that takes effect October 21. The new FAA rule is a byproduct of an incident in which inspectors overseeing Southwest Airlines were found to be too friendly with the airline. “The flying public can rest assured that our aviation safety inspectors will remain focused on protecting the flying public without any conflicts of interest,” declared U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
In 2008, the FAA launched an industry-wide safety audit following revelations that Southwest had failed to perform mandatory inspections of 46 Boeing 737s in 2006 and 2007 to check for fuselage fatigue cracking. FAA inspectors testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in April that year said senior managers in FAA’s Irving, Texas, regional office overseeing Southwest had blocked investigations of the airline’s safety compliance and threatened their jobs. A subsequent review by the Department of Transportation inspector general (IG) concluded that the FAA’s certificate management office had failed to perform the required inspections and “developed an overly collaborative relationship” with the airline. The IG recommended a two-year “cooling off” period to prohibit an air carrier from hiring former safety inspectors from FAA’s Flight Standards Service who may have previously inspected that carrier.
A proposed rule was published in November 2009. According to the final rule, the employment restriction applies if a former FAA employee was either directly involved or provided oversight of an aviation safety inspector with responsibility for an air carrier. Inspectors “directly engaged in certificate management typically develop close working relationships with other (FAA inspectors) with whom they share direct oversight responsibilities for a particular operator,” the rule states. “The FAA believes that aviation safety could be compromised if a former (inspector), acting on behalf of the operator, is able to exert undue influence on current FAA employees with whom he or she had established close working relationships.” The FAA said 165 inspectors left the agency for retirement and various other reasons in Fiscal Year 2008; of these, 125 would have been affected by the rule.
The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) union represents some 3,000 FAA aviation safety inspectors. “We support this rule,” a PASS spokesperson told AIN. “We support anything that is going to enhance [safety] oversight.”