RAA Convention 2006: SMS, ATOS, drug testing, water purity fill RAA rules ledger

 - September 19, 2006, 11:06 AM

RAA vice president of technical affairs Dave Lotterer has been around long enough to know that government bureaucracy can turn any well intentioned idea into a monument to inefficiency. So when the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) established a subgroup dedicated to formulating requirements related to safety management systems (SMSs) for airlines, ATC and government agencies, he knew to pay close attention.

A key element of the proposed next-generation aviation transportation system (NGATS), SMS manages safety risks through a methodical and explicit set of rules and processes instituted throughout an organization, thereby reducing the number of isolated safety decisions. Already used by Transport Canada and the Australian Civil Aviation Authority, SMS includes processes to collect and analyze safety data, conduct safety reviews and evaluations and continuously monitor data.

To Lotterer and the RAA, all that sounds noble and constructive, but until the FAA proves it can administer a new set of rules without letting its internal agendas interfere with the spirit of the exercise, the airline industry cannot afford to accept it at face value.

“We want to make sure that the FAA is in sync with the industry, because quite often we have to address the FAA’s priorities, which aren’t necessarily associated with safety; they’re just their priorities,” said Lotterer. “So we have to spend a lot of time working problems that don’t really have safety significance.”

Anyone who doubts the legitimacy of Lotterer’s concerns need only trace the progress of the FAA’s attempts to streamline and standardize the air transport oversight system (ATOS) for reassurance. A set of mandatory airline safety audits instituted largely in reaction to the 1996 crash of a ValuJet DC-9 in the Florida Everglades, ATOS has hit certain regional airlines particularly hard, and efforts to ease their pain have proved largely ineffectual. Others, meanwhile, such as St. George, Utah-based SkyWest, found the process to go comparatively smoothly from the start, leaving some with the impression that the problem might rest with the protesters themselves. Not so, according to Lotterer.

“The struggle with ATOS continues,” he lamented. “You’ve got to understand what it is; it’s an FAA audit and it isn’t the airline’s responsibility to do their audit. So if you do have people within the FAA that view it that way, [the airlines] don’t have a problem with it. It’s the particular carriers that have inspectors that view this work as something that they can hand off to the airline, and if they continually bug management to provide them with information, why, it becomes a very burdensome process.”

Theoretically, ATOS would eventually lessen the FAA’s oversight burden by promoting regulatory compliance by virtue of the system itself, rather than individual initiative. And by building a database of all the airlines that undergo ATOS audits, the FAA hoped to create a sort of template of best practices for all to follow, again with the aim of eventually lessening its own workload. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened because of the sheer size of the undertaking.

“It took so long to go through the audit process that they could never really compare one airline to another,” said Lotterer. “And then the FAA of course has union issues, where even [in the case of America West’s merger with US Airways] they’re having trouble moving the inspectors from [former US Airways hub] Pittsburgh, where they’re no longer really needed. The point is the FAA has trouble dispatching inspectors to places of greatest need…There’s just a lot of things they have to do themselves to realize the value of ATOS in their own oversight process.”

Of course, Lotterer’s complaints about misplaced priorities don’t end there. A change to regulations governing drug and alcohol testing for maintenance workers, for example, left him wondering what precipitated the push to extend the rule’s reach to personnel without airworthiness responsibility, conceivably covering anyone from a bench worker to a carpet cleaner.

“This basically extends the need to test for drug and alcohol abuse of maintenance employees at any tier, which really goes beyond the certificate authority of the FAA,” said Lotterer. “In other words, there are contractors [now covered under the rule] that the FAA in effect has never had jurisdiction over.”

The Aeronautical Repair Station Association on March 10 filed a Petition for Review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit over the issue, arguing that it amounts to an “unreasonable, irrational, arbitrary and capricious” extension of the FAA’s authority. The RAA has asked flight standards for further guidance about who precisely the rule will cover, and the FAA has moved the compliance date from April 10 to October 10. “In the meantime we’re expecting they will provide a more rational explanation on who in fact should be tested,” said Lotterer.

Unfortunately, any quest for rationality often proves futile when it comes to politically charged subjects such as drug use; to take a stand against testing would only invite vilification from the family-values crowd. Similarly, when the EPA made public its findings of a 2004 investigation in which it found coliform contamination in the drinking water in 15 percent of 327 U.S. and foreign-registered airplanes at 19 airports, the airlines saw little choice but to sign consent agreements that required them to disinfect their tanks every quarter and test the water every year at EPA-approved laboratories.

However, in the RAA’s opinion, the EPA acted rashly in announcing plans for a sweeping rulemaking change before it reviewed the test data produced under the consent agreements. At the industry’s request, the EPA agreed to delay the start of the rulemaking process for another year, giving the RAA a chance to make its case for less onerous requirements, at least for regionals.

“We felt that they were overreacting,” said Lotterer. “Because of the size of our tanks I think it’s a bit too much to do the testing, but we certainly support a good disinfection program.” All the Embraer jets carry just a single five-gallon aft water tank for the lavatory sink, according to Lotterer, while the Bombardier CRJ line uses an eight-gallon forward galley tank and a five-gallon aft tank for the lav sink.

As a result, the water–which must come from EPA-approved sources–doesn’t sit in the tanks for very long, leaving little time for bacteria to grow. As long as the operators disinfect the tanks on a logical schedule, testing shouldn’t be necessary, reasoned Lotterer.

“In terms of maybe moving up the disinfection programs to make them more frequent, we can certainly buy into that,” said Lotterer. “Depending on when you test too, rather than just every quarter it might make more sense to test more frequently in the summer than in the winter, because quite often we remove the water in the winter so that it doesn’t freeze overnight. So it doesn’t make that much sense to do quarterly disinfection programs.”

Of course, everyone wants clean water, and the RAA doesn’t want to sound so beholden to its members’ narrow interests as to appear indifferent to the public good. As in any debate about the value of a given rule, it needs to recognize that the negative public relations consequences make some battles not worth the fight.

In other cases, however, the proposal at hand proves as clearly untenable as the FAA’s proposed amendment to extend the scope of its Service Difficulty Reporting (SDR) rule to include structural findings during C and D checks, for example. Originally proposed in 2001, the change might have doubled the amount of reporting required, said Lotterer. As a result of the torrent of negative industry comments, it encountered multiple delays until the FAA finally withdrew the proposal on December 29.

“We’ve always kind of viewed that activity as [having] very little value,” said Lotterer. “Basically every AD that you have is developed as a result of feedback from the airlines and the SDR process is used little, if ever. I think the FAA is recognizing that it plays little role in airline safety.”