Torqued: Fight for voluntary safety programs

 - May 2, 2008, 10:59 AM

The last few months have been difficult for a number of aviation players. First, there were several whistleblower complaints from FAA aviation safety inspectors who risked their futures to make serious allegations against their management in the southwest region. These allegations had been under investigation for some time when the U.S. Congress decided to hold hearings and have FAA senior management respond to them in a public forum. This can be a painful process for any government executive. Many of these events become a media circus, prolonging the pain over several days or, in this case, several weeks.

In part, the allegations involved the certificate holding office of Southwest Airlines, which was drawn into the battle when it disclosed that it had overlooked an Airworthiness Directive affecting some 47 aircraft.

There were charges that the FAA principal maintenance inspector was too friendly with the airline and not performing his duties properly. The investigation is ongoing,
so we will have to wait to find out what was really going on within that region. However, if you watched any of the hearing you realized it was not a good day for the FAA, whose senior management was singled out for considerable criticism from several committee members. In Washington, sometimes the facts take second place to politics.

To add insult to injury, American Airlines reported that another Airworthiness Directive had not been properly complied with and that some 300 MD-80s were grounded for additional inspections to ensure compliance with the AD.

Voluntary Programs Targeted
One of the areas that the U.S. House of Representatives committee singled out for attention was the voluntary programs that most airlines have implemented over the last 10 years. Many of us in the industry and government have worked long and hard to develop a process that would provide a higher level of knowledge about actual events occurring within day-to-day operations almost in real time. This has allowed the FAA and industry to get in front of the precursors of an accident. To the uninformed, these programs look like a get-out-of-jail-free system for the airlines and their employees when they get caught violating the rules. These programs have been invisible to the traveling public, and the inaccurate way they were portrayed during these hearings has left many people with the wrong impression. I fear that many in the industry will back away from participating in these programs until the political dust settles. Additionally, we will have to work for a long time to change the public’s view of that inaccurate perception.

It also appears that the FAA–or the Department of Transportation–has decided that an old-fashioned tough-cop approach is what is needed now, and that strategy is evident in some of the agency’s recent actions. I am really surprised at how quickly we went from an open system of disclosures to one of violate first and forget about discovering the cause so that corrections can be put in place for all similar operations. Recently we have added operators from fractional and corporate ranks.

I am old enough to remember how difficult it was to get all the different groups in aviation to agree to discuss events in the open so that a common solution could be developed. Those programs have matured to the point that we take their effectiveness for granted. The positive effect of all of these disclosures cannot be measured, but the procedures and processes that have been changed are significant. For the last few years we have been working on the precursors to accidents instead of investigating the accident.

Preventing the accident before it occurs has been a dream of every accident investigator, FAA safety inspector and other aviation professionals. All of us who were working within this system have seen the benefits of much hard work. We now have the safest transportation system in the history of travel. And when you factor in the increased numbers of flights the statistics become even more impressive.

My fear is that because of political misunderstanding and pressure we will walk away from the very process that has made travel so safe. All of us in aviation need to stand up and educate our political leaders about the facts. Every one of us must defend all the voluntary safety programs. We are not interested in having a get-out-of-jail free card; we are interested in providing safe transportation to the traveling public. We cannot stand by and let these programs be destroyed by politicians who don’t understand the value we have gained from these programs. The time to push back is now. The way to save these programs is to call or e-mail your congressmen and let them know the truth. This is an election year, and they will listen.

There is one more casualty in this Washington-driven event, and that is the morale of the FAA workforce. Watching their management take a verbal beating about the whistleblower complaints doesn’t make anyone feel proud of their employer, even if they recognize that Congress has created some of these problems by failing to provide the resources to adequately staff the aviation safety inspector ranks. This sends a negative message to the thousands of professionals who go to work every day and try to protect the traveling public. I’m sure that many of these people felt as if they were mugged by Congress.