Should voluntary safety programs be mandatory?

 - September 22, 2010, 8:03 AM

By the time you read this, I hope the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers (IAM), Comair and the FAA have reached agreement and reinstituted the maintenance Aviation Safety Action Program (Asap) at Comair. It’s a sad day indeed for air safety when a voluntary program with so much safety potential becomes the pawn in a labor-management disagreement and the FAA is unable or unwilling to mediate the dispute effectively. Everyone loses–the company, the employees and especially the passengers.  

We have seen this before with pilots at Delta, American and US Airways when they pulled out of their Asap programs in disputes about the handling of Asap reports. Fortunately, those programs have been reinstated. However, we will never know what important safety information was forever lost in the interim. And while much is made of the enforcement and disciplinary consideration afforded to employees who voluntarily provide safety information even if it implicates them in a regulatory violation, companies clearly have the most to gain from employee reports that have the potential to reduce expensive incidents and accidents. And the real beneficiaries are the passengers, who are entitled to the safest possible system.

Mining information that reveals safety pitfalls available only to employees working the system is critical. In fact, FAA data indicates that up to 75 percent of the Asap maintenance reports result in task or job card changes and up to 25 percent result in changes across an organization.  

Maintenance Manual Vetting
While pilot, flight attendant and dispatcher information is critical to air safety, there are some unique issues with maintenance that make voluntarily provided information particularly important. For example, while the flight operations manual of an aircraft is thoroughly vetted before an aircraft is approved to enter service, the maintenance manual, incredibly, never undergoes any serious vetting before an aircraft is introduced. So while mechanics are expected to perform maintenance in accordance with the manufacturer’s manual, they are also supposed to know that the manual could be wrong and to report any problems they find.

Many mechanics have “worked around” incorrect manuals and potentially would be in jeopardy if they now report a problem with the manual they have been supposedly using for years. (Every time I write about this issue, I get scores of e-mails from mechanics who say they have tried unsuccessfully to persuade manufacturers to make changes to the maintenance manuals. They say they have been forced into these “work-arounds” out of frustration when the manuals remain unchanged.) Without an immunity program, mechanics have too much to lose to come forward voluntarily. Jobs are tight and no one wants a mechanic with a disciplinary record or a history of FAA enforcement actions.

But the public has too much to lose if these mechanics don’t come forward.
Accidents have happened and will continue to occur because of mistakes in the manuals, mistakes that perhaps some mechanics knew about but that were never formally corrected in the manuals themselves. And this is just one small example of information that only maintenance workers themselves have.  

Air safety has always depended on voluntary compliance. There are not enough FAA inspectors to directly monitor a fraction of the aviation activity in the U.S., let alone the global span of aviation today. But voluntary compliance and programs that offer incentives for employees to provide information voluntarily are not the same thing. So while we expect employees to comply with the rules whether anyone is looking or not, we cannot expect them to implicate themselves in safety lapses at the risk of their careers and their certificates. Hence, the raison d’être for Asap, which gives employees limited “immunity” from company discipline and FAA enforcement if they voluntarily provide safety information, even if that information reveals wrong-doing on their part.

For too long the FAA and the industry have confused voluntarily provided information with a voluntary program to encourage that information. But encouraging voluntary reporting can perhaps be done more effectively by mandating those programs. Why should it be up to an air carrier or a repair station to decide whether it should support an Asap program? Just as legislation protects whistleblowers from retaliation, employees who come forward with safety data should be protected from disciplinary and enforcement action, with, of course, appropriate exclusions for intentional or criminal misconduct. Why allow these safety programs to exist at the whim of airlines and repair stations? Why should employee organizations decide for employees whether they should continue to enjoy the protections afforded by these programs?  The public is not well served by the ability of companies and unions to pull out at will. And the FAA has not lived up to its responsibility to encourage the parties to stay in the program.

In my opinion, the most recent Asap fracas indicates that the time has come to make the program mandatory. It should no longer be voluntary for airlines, repair stations, unions and the FAA to offer employees incentives to report safety information. The Administration needs to mandate Asap.