The FAA seems to have been extraordinarily busy of late finding incidents of non-compliance with regulations. The result is what seems to be a high number of civil penalties assessed against operators, from airlines to tiny flight schools, for infractions ranging from non-compliance with Airworthiness Directives to flying
a Piper Warrior with a broken cabin door stay. Whether or not the level of FAA enforcement activity has grown is debatable, but what is clear from these actions is that FAA inspectors are scrutinizing the airworthiness of aircraft at what some might consider a microscopic level.
To be sure, airworthiness is clearly defined and thus the unairworthy state is not that hard to determine. But by tacit agreement, the FAA has often turned a blind eye to unairworthiness items that have no relation to safety, such as the aforementioned broken door stay, or else the agency simply has chosen to let those go and focus on more important and fruitful avenues to investigate.
But like former New York City Police commissioner William Bratton’s efforts to rein in crime in that city by targeting graffiti artists, window washers and petty criminals, perhaps the FAA and its new administrator, Randy Babbitt, see a safety opportunity. Maybe going after small problems will help the aviation industry understand that violation of an FAA regulation is always a violation and that an attitude of compliance with the little things will enhance safety all around.
An Ongoing Commitment to Safety
Another explanation might be the FAA’s Call to Action, launched in June last year. The final report for the Call to Action was released in January and “lays out our initial actions to improve and revise pilot training and to develop an effective pilot fatigue rule.
“We also share what we have done to begin what must be an ongoing dialogue with airlines and unions to strengthen professionalism in the aviation industry and create mentoring programs for our nation’s pilots. This report is a snapshot of our work, which is by no means finished. We will continue to aggressively push forward with these initiatives that we believe will raise the safety bar even higher.”
Examples of the FAA’s recent attention to detail abound (see chart below).
Is the FAA cracking down on the aviation industry more than usual? According to the agency’s quarterly enforcement reports, the most recent issue of which came out at the end of 2009, there were 349 enforcement actions during 2009 and 417 during 2008.
It should be noted that the actions taken in the items mentioned in the chart are those that the FAA decided, for whatever reason, to publicize by sending press releases to news outlets.
The majority of enforcement actions receive little public mention and are usually negotiated to a lower price and closed after agreement between the FAA and the affected operator.
And although the actions listed in the chart include primarily airlines, a look through the quarterlies reveals plenty of business aviation companies that have received FAA enforcement attention. The clear message that the agency appears to want to send is that it is actively pursuing non-complying operators.
Proposed FAA Civil Penalties
Operator – Alleged offense – Proposed penalty
North-Aire Aviation, Prescott Valley, Ariz. – Failure to comply with flight school regulations and falsifying records – $330,000
ERA Helicopters, Lake Charles, La. – Not performing required flight tests before returning a helicopter to service – $260,000
Frontier Airlines – Flying 900 flights with the wrong placards – $380,000
Northwest Airlines – Improperly complying with a 1990 AD on windshield wiring inspections – $1.45 mil
American Airlines – Flying with inoperative pitot/stall heater light on captain’s annunciator panel – $300,000
American Airlines – Three separate incidents: improperly deferring maintenance on an inoperative central air data computer; failure to comply with an AD for inspecting rudder components; and returning an airplane to service without completing a B Check inspection and replacing a landing gear door without noting that in the logbook. – $787,500
GE Caledonian – Improper maintenance procedures on 101 turbine engines over a 3.5-year period, specifically welding a locking screw to an engine mount thrust pin instead of drilling and tapping a hole in the thrust pin. – $1.2 mil
American Eagle Airlines – Flying airplanes after improper repairs done on landing gear doors. An AD on the airline’s regional jets called for removal and replacement with repaired doors, but the airline repaired the doors while they remained on the airplanes. – $2.9 mil
American Eagle Airlines – Not ensuring that weight-and-balance was properly calculated. “Baggage weight listed on airplane cargo load sheets disagreed with data entered into the company’s electronic weight-and-balance system.” – $2.475 mil
Chautauqua Airlines – Not performing actions required by five ADs on regional jets and engines. The FAA alleged that the problem was caused by the airline’s maintenance program and system for tracking AD status. – $348,000
Atlas Air – Flying a Boeing 747 after incorrectly replacing a cockpit window, and operating a 747 without an onboard engine pylon access panel door and improperly fabricating a panel from aluminum and speed tape “at each subsequent stop.” – $572,150
Continental Airlines – Flying passenger flights after a problem was found with the right main landing gear on a Boeing 737 – $325,000
Air Mods and Repair, Wilmington, Del. – For maintenance problems on a Piper PA-23 Aztec and PA-28 Warrior. The Warrior defects included severely cracked cowl latches, a broken door stay rod, left-hand outboard aileron cracked and many others. Some of the items seem extraordinarily persnickety and not worth noting, such as: “right side sun visor missing, oil cooler winterization plate missing, overhead right side air vent cracked.” On the Aztec, the FAA found items like: lower left cowl patch missing rivets, left flap at center hinge area trailing edge rivets pulled through skin, hydraulic fluid leaking at left gear actuator. There were less important items listed on the Aztec as well: “Fuel 100 Oct LL placard” worn on all four tanks, entry door upholstery worn and passenger area sidewall trim loose behind pilot’s seat. – $297,000