Congressional hearings put FAA under the microscope

 - November 3, 2008, 9:37 AM

In recent months, Congressional leaders have held pre-election hearings on a number of aviation issues. So far, these gatherings have made a lot of headlines but produced little in the way of tangible results.

First, Eclipse Aviation and the FAA came under the microscope for alleged problems with the way the aircraft was certified. I can tell you from experience–two confirmation hearings– that being the subject of any congressional hearing is difficult. In the month before the Eclipse hearing, the company was required to undergo a special certification review by a team from the FAA. Such a process certainly takes valuable time away from running a business. Additionally, company management also had to prepare for their own presentation before the congressional committee.

The hearing produced a robust discussion on the certification of the aircraft and the focus shifted to the role of the FAA’s senior leaders in the certification process. These managers had to explain the criticism leveled from their own certification inspectors and from a critical report prepared by the Department of Transportation Inspector General at the request of Congress.

The same FAA regional office was involved in a congressional hearing earlier in September. The subject of that hearing was FAA oversight of two airlines that had different problems complying with Air- worthiness Directives. One carrier over-flew an Airworthiness Directive on a number of aircraft and was punished with a steep fine. The other airline had to explain how it complied with Airworthiness Directives, including complying with the detailed work instructions. In the first instance, the hearing was the result of a whistleblower complaint that FAA management was too lenient with the airline in allowing flights to continue after discovery of the problem. In the second, the issue was a strict interpretation of the Airworthiness Directive rule. The FAA was on the hot seat for hours explaining what happened and how it proposed to address the problem.

FAA Needs More Oversight
What is the end result of all this effort? First, for most of a month the public was bombarded with news about how the poor performance of FAA management has placed the traveling public at greater risk. While I might agree that there was an increase in risk to the travelers on certain aircraft during this time period, I don’t agree that the increase was significant or that it was anywhere near the levels portrayed by some members of the press.

A larger issue, it seems to me, is that the Inspector General again was able to show the weaknesses of the FAA oversight process, which I wish the agency would finally take some steps to address. The Inspector General has made a compelling case that there are problems with the oversight system that need to be addressed today. They cannot wait for something like a meaningful safety management system to be implemented that, in theory, will address these issues by making the operators themselves address them. It will take at least 18 months for the industry’s safety management systems to be ready to deal effectively with large complex issues. 

Some members of Congress were able to vent their frustration with the FAA’s inability to address the issues in a timely and meaningful way. As we in industry study what was disclosed during the hearings, we should remember that Congress has been raising these concerns for a while without seeing any meaningful action on the part of the FAA’s management.

Some of the FAA’s employee groups, including the unions, were able to demonstrate the burdens that they are routinely required to operate under in an attempt to provide effective oversight. Personnel issues have been a problem for the FAA’s management for many years with no end in sight. Nicholas Sabatini, associate administrator for aviation safety, has had some success in dealing with poor-performing personnel, but the problems are many and will take some time to work through. Uncertainty about this effort continues following Sabatini’s announcement last month that he will retire on January 3.

I think the current FAA customer-service initiative, under which airlines and manufacturers are treated as customers, has been mortally wounded and will soon disappear from the FAA landscape. This is a real loss for all who travel. The customer service initiative has generated many improvements. That is made clear not only by today’s exemplary accident rate but also by the operational problems we are not seeing. I’m sure we will not see action on any of the issues disclosed during this series of hearings until next year, and how they are handled will be left to the next administration.

One thing Congress must address is the funding for an agency that is required to respond to the many industry initiatives that happen more quickly than government programs can keep up with. After all, the speed of business is faster than the speed of government.