As scrutiny intensifies, Sturgell defends FAA cooperative programs

 - August 31, 2008, 12:59 PM

Speaking at this year’s EAA AirVenture, acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell defended the track record of various agency-industry cooperative safety and inspection programs against Congressional criticism and promised to crack down on those who abuse rules governing amateur-built aircraft.

Two recent episodes, at Southwest Airlines and Eclipse Aviation, have resulted in increased scrutiny for FAA-industry cooperative programs. For example, on March 12 Southwest grounded 38 of its Boeing 737-300s after divulging that it had missed interval inspections for fuselage fatigue cracks mandated by a 2002 FAA Airworthiness Directive. Critics charged that the aircraft were allowed to fly past their inspection dates with the tacit approval of FAA inspectors. The Southwest revelation came on the heels of a $10.2 million FAA civil penalty for lapses in maintenance practices discovered during a 2007 audit.

In June, Congress directed the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General to investigate charges lodged by FAA aircraft certification engineers that FAA managers ignored significant safety issues they raised on the Eclipse 500 and improperly issued the aircraft’s provisional type certificate in 2006. (See AIN, August, page 23.) Those alleged safety issues included cockpit displays that were prone to failure and fadec issues that could lead to a loss of control of engine thrust.

Critics charge that the Southwest and Eclipse episodes resulted from an overly cozy relationship between FAA regulators and those they oversee, fostered in part by a new generation of cooperative FAA-industry programs that give aircraft manufacturers and operators wide latitude for self-regulation. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has requested special investigations into both the Southwest and Eclipse matters and could make them the topics of high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill.

Sturgell said that such cooperative programs enhance air safety. “They are the reason we’ve gotten to the level of safety we have today,” he said. He blamed the situation at Southwest on “a limited number of people, both in our agency and at Southwest, not doing the right thing,” but hinted that the media had sensationalized the story. Sturgell defended the need for FAA personnel to “maintain their ability to exercise discretion.” He added, however, that the agency would not be complacent in the face of problems. “There are parts of these programs that need to be better,” he conceded.

One requirement that Sturgell identified for increased enforcement is the 51-percent rule, which mandates that the owners of amateur-built/non-certified aircraft contribute at least 51 percent of the labor necessary for their creation. Some “kit” companies have set up assembly lines that the owners/builders occasionally visit. “It has come to our attention that some companies are not following the letter of the law. We cannot allow that,” he noted.

Sturgell did not mention any companies by name, but well placed sources within the homebuilt aircraft industry told that one of the companies targeted for stepped-up FAA enforcement of the amateur-built rule was Bend, Ore.-based Epic Aircraft, which has, according to visitors, a production line for its “amateur-built,” pressurized, single-engine Dynasty turboprop. Other manufacturers of “quick build” kits might also come under increased scrutiny.

However, the difficulty in enforcing the 51-percent requirement has prompted the FAA to propose changing the rules for amateur-built aircraft to require that at least 20 percent be “fabricated” by the owner-builder. If adopted, the new rule could force some companies to redesign their kits.

Sturgell also addressed the issues of ATC, NextGen technology and user fees. The acting FAA Administrator conceded that the nation’s ATC system is in a “transition” phase as controllers hired in the wake of the 1981 Patco strike retire. Air traffic controllers must retire at age 56 and have the option of retiring before then after 20 or 25 years of service.

He said that the agency is replacing the retiring controllers through aggressive hiring–at a rate of 1,800 controllers per year–and training.

No Progress on Contract with Controllers
The agency’s ongoing contract dispute with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union (Natca) should be kept in perspective, he noted. “We value this work force,” Sturgell said, adding that the FAA had placed a $70 million settlement issue “on the table.”

Sturgell said that controllers are already some of the highest paid federal employees and have seen their pay increase much faster than other federal workers. Rookie controllers make more than $50,000, and experienced controllers make up to $168,000.

“I think that is competitive,” he said, adding that any future controller contract needs to be “affordable in the long-term.”

Sturgell charged that Natca’s contract demands, if applied retroactively, would cost more than $1 billion and that, overall, controller workload has decreased significantly since 2000 in terms of the number of operations handled by an average controller. He also said that new technology could further lighten future controller workload. That technology includes ADS-B and WAAS. Sturgell noted that ADS-B would be up and running at select South Florida airports by the end of the summer.

He also defended the proposed imposition of user fees on GA and tighter TSA-imposed security requirements for GA airports.

“We are trying to make the system more fair and cost-based, while at the same time protecting folks who are not [contributing] a lot to costs.” Sturgell said that “high-end GA” drove costs by “using the upper airspace” and “major metropolitan-area airspace.”

He acknowledged that some TSA requirements for smaller airports, such as full-perimeter security fences, are burdensome, but argued that aviation continues to be a “preferred target” for terrorists.