FAA Official: Budget Cuts Driving FAA Reform

 - August 1, 2013, 4:55 PM
John Allen, director of the FAA’s Flight Standards Service

Budget sequestration may have some obvious negative consequences, such as precluding the Pentagon from displaying U.S. warplanes at the Paris Air Show for the first time in more than two decades. But it has the potential to yield some positive changes as well. On the domestic side of the ledger, for example, the head of the FAA’s office of flight standards foresees draconian funding cuts as an opportunity to make changes in the way his agency does business.

Speaking at the recent National Air Transportation Association’s annual Air Charter Summit recently, John Allen, director of the FAA’s Flight Standards Service, said he sees the mandatory cutbacks as an opportunity for change.

With shrinking budgets, he said, the FAA will have to focus on areas of “real risk,” while working smarter and making appropriate use of resources. Allen observed that change in the industry is accelerating, with Congress, the media and the public all calling for an increase in accountability.

According to Allen, the FAA has to be quicker to recognize shifts in airman experience, aircraft, avionics and airspace. That, in turn, will require the agency hire aviation safety inspectors (ASIs) with the right skills and experience, while training in accordance with an evolving regulatory posture.

“Enforcing regulations is only one small part of what we do,” he told summit attendees. “Eight percent of the enforcement cases in the pipeline shouldn’t be there.”

Allen wants FAA inspectors to engage with operators. “If [operators] have the right attitude, I’m happy,” he explained. But he warned, “I’m a regulator; I’m not your friend.” And while he still wants to ensure that the FAA’s inspectors “touch metal,” he acknowledged that the agency will be making greater use of designees.

There will be a shift in training, managing and overseeing those designees who act for the FAA. “Lack of standardization is one of the industry’s most persistent complaints against the FAA,” he acknowledged.

One of the provisions in the recent FAA reauthorization requires the FAA Administrator to establish an advisory panel to address this very subject. A key potential action, Allen said, is for the group to review FAA guidance to verify that it is consistent with the regulation it is intended to support.

Challenges Ahead

Allen also reiterated statements that he has made in the past: that the industry could eventually be facing a shortage of pilots and, equally important, aviation mechanics. The FAA reauthorization bill stipulates that the agency complete rulemaking to require all Part 121 airline pilots hold an air transport pilot (ATP) certificate, and at the same time it requires the agency to revise the standards to attain an ATP.

According to Allen, it could soon cost $160,000 to $180,000 to attain an ATP, which he characterizes as “a steep hill to climb.” With a lot of young people leaving aviation, in a few years the industry could be hurting for pilots and mechanics. “We are concerned about it,” he added.

He also acknowledged that the FAA is currently having a problem getting new rules passed and put into effect. Already in the regulatory mill are a final rule on pilot training that is scheduled to be released in October and a final rule on pilot fatigue that is slated to become law in January next year.

Allen predicted that sequestration cutbacks will force the FAA to become more agile and rely less on specialists. But he acknowledged that the makeup and geographical staffing of Flight Standards “is hindering me.” The new mantra of the FAA will be “trust but verify.”

Summit participants also received a first-hand view of NATA’s Safety 1st Ground Audit Standard to promote industry best practices and safety management systems developed among ground handling providers in response to member requests for a safety standard and rating for FBOs. According to NATA, this audit standard is the first published audit for FBOs and other ground handling service providers.

But the summit was not all work and no play. At an evening reception and barbeque, the event raised $24,000 for the Veterans Airlift Command, a charitable organization that provides free transportation to wounded warriors, veterans and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes.