ATOS, CSET tax airlines and FAA to limits

 - November 1, 2006, 9:46 AM

By just about anyone’s reckoning the FAA audit process known as the Air Transport Oversight System (ATOS) has turned into a horribly labor-intensive and time-consuming job. Now, as the agency’s flight standards office loses about 250 employees a year to budget cuts, the onus has fallen squarely on the nation’s regional airlines to pay the bill. The daily disruption has become a fact of life for the five regional airlines picked as the first to undergo the process. At this point, operators can only hope that industry can come up with some ideas to streamline ATOS or expect to spend as many as five years to finish it.

ATOS and the authority established to oversee certification of airlines and new airplanes, the Certification, Standardization and Evaluation Team (CSET), came into being largely in reaction to the 1996 crash of a ValuJet DC-9 in the Florida Everglades. Every Part 121 carrier must eventually submit to the process. American Eagle became the first regional airline to undergo the audits, but only after ATOS had already grown into the gargantuan undertaking it has now become.

In a rush to institute ATOS after the January 2000 crash of an Alaska Airlines MD-80, Congress required the FAA to report on the safety processes of 10 major airlines within six months of the close of the crash inquiry. That report, in effect, acted as a template for ATOS. But by that time the new oversight system hadn’t yet morphed into the litany of some 10,000 audit questions it now encompasses, according to RAA technical affairs vice president Dave Lotterer.

“[The majors] say they have met it, but they haven’t,” said Lotterer. “They have not gone through these versions, so it has been the regional carriers that have in effect had to face this.”

As it exists today, ATOS uses a so-called systematic approach to ensure a given airline’s internal safety processes organically promote compliance with regulations already on the books. For example, in the event an employee normally responsible for a certain function fails in his duties for whatever reason, an ATOS-compliant system would ensure a mechanism exists to ensure someone else performs the task.

The FAA wants to use the data it collects to build a database of manuals from each airline. At this pace, however, it won’t finish the job for decades, said Lotterer. Overwhelmed, local FAA inspectors have issued ultimatums to the airlines: do the auditing work yourselves or wait years for the agency to finally finish it.

Contractors Performing Audits

Companies such as Trans States and Pinnacle Airlines, both of which need to certify new divisions to skirt scope-clause restrictions imposed by mainline pilots, can’t wait that long. Unwilling to dedicate valuable work hours to such an undertaking, Trans States has opted to hire a contractor to do the work, at considerable expense, so it can open GoJet to fly CRJ700s for United this August. Cape Air did the same when it certified a new division to fly ATR 42s from Guam last year.

While airlines such as TSA and Cape Air deal with the realities as best they can, the RAA hopes that the feds heed its appeals for more efficient management of the program. This year the agency will see a $30 million budget shortfall for Flight Standards alone, forcing it to do more with fewer people. According to Lotterer, the FAA first needs to consolidate control over its field offices, helping to take some pressure off already stretched local staff.

To validate the relative strength of a particular airline’s manual program, FAA inspectors have to compare it with the programs established by airlines that have already passed the ATOS audit. The system has proved cumbersome, said Lotterer, because different district offices have to perform their own searches and judge the relative merits of the programs themselves, a subjective process that has proven both time consuming and ambiguous. Lotterer argues that a system under which just one group within the FAA validates each airline’s program will ensure a more consistently applied standard and save man-hours at the FSDOs.

“What you’re trying to do is develop an audit process that’s uniform across the board,” he said. “One of the problems now with the FAA organization is that they’ve delegated too much responsibility to the local [FSDO] people, and they don’t have good control over the process.”

‘A Hell of a Mess’

At the industry’s urging, the FAA has begun trying to simplify the audit forms, but Lotterer said many redundant questions still litter their pages. Dave Gilliam, head of the FAA’s AFS 900 flight standards office, has promised to answer questions about the agency’s efforts at this year’s convention. But if he doesn’t bring with him some news of solid progress, he’d better prepare for a hostile audience. “[Gilliam] is quite responsive but he’s just got a hell of mess,” said Lotterer.

Considering the stifling bureaucracy of the FAA, the clean-up crew will more likely than not have to come from the private sector. In fact, the agency is studying a proposal to register private vendors to basically act as surrogates for the FAA. Keller, Texas-based Cavok International, the company that helped with Cape Air’s CSET approval and now works with Trans States, could obviously participate, as could others who have helped airlines with ATOS audits.

Of course, the question of who pays will loom large and, under its current budget constraints, the FAA certainly won’t want to foot the bill on its own. In a seeming paradox, Congress institutes costly legislation in the interest of public safety, but passes cuts to funding the FAA needs to carry out the policy, leaving the airlines holding the proverbial bag. Knowing that Congress would never take the political risk of questioning the real value of the legislation, Lotterer can only urge industry to do whatever it can to soften the blow. “The FAA has in effect told Congress it’s committed to this process,” said Lotterer. “So we can yell out that this is the stupidest thing we ever saw, but that’s not going to change anything. We’re stuck with it.”