Just a few years ago, no one in the aviation safety business anywhere on earth would have seriously asked if the FAA is losing its safety edge. For more than half a century, the FAA was the unquestioned leader in airline safety around the globe, the one all other nations looked to for leadership in setting the safety bar.
But now, I am increasingly convinced, the question is a legitimate one. Is the FAA in danger of losing its status as the premier regulatory agency? And its certifications for being the gold standard? This isn’t about the U.S.’s enviable safety record today; it’s about maintaining and improving on that record in the future.
As country after country mandates safety management systems–and the FAA does not–where is our safety leadership? Have we fallen behind? Publicly the FAA supports SMS unequivocally–as does every safety expert I know. (And, yes, I co-authored two textbooks on SMS so I am very much in favor of SMS to provide a structured approach to risk management.) But does the agency’s public support make up for foot-dragging when it comes to mandating compliance by rule? Can jaw-boning ever substitute for regulatory mandates? Not here.
In the past, one could certainly criticize the FAA–Lord knows it gives us a lot of reason to, and I have certainly done that myself more times than I can count–but that never meant that some other country’s CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) had a more demanding or exacting safety edge than the U.S. No, those criticisms were always against the backdrop of the FAA being the leader when it came to global safety requirements, albeit a leader who could at times do a better job.
After all, the U.S. pioneered powered flight in 1903. And it was the U.S. that invited nations of the world to meet in Chicago in 1944 and join together in the first global aviation safety treaty of the modern age. That treaty–the Convention on International Civil Aviation, known to most of us as the Chicago Convention–created ICAO and set forth the framework for establishing global standards and recommended practices.
The whole point of the Chicago Convention was to set worldwide regulatory standards to make flying safer and more efficient–and thus more economical–than if flying meant complying with a patchwork of rules. The drafters of the Convention came up with a rather clever way of making sure that the standards could be changed as needed over time without the need for a whole treaty ratification process. But whereas the FAA was at the forefront of changes in the past, it is now lagging behind in some important aspects.
FAA Foot-dragging on SMS
So let’s take safety management systems. While ICAO added the requirement for SMS to achieve an acceptable level of safety years ago to international standards–and a number of countries, such as Canada and countries of the EU, adopted mandatory requirements in line with those international standards–the FAA chose not to. Instead, the U.S. filed “differences”–which is basically legalese for the U.S. not going along with an international safety standard adopted by ICAO.
Why this inexcusable delay? Yes, the FAA rulemaking process takes a long time, but the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued more than two years ago. It used to be that rulemaking consisted of a notice, comment period and final rule. Now, we have advance notices? Has the FAA become so afraid of alphabet groups that it has to do advance notices of rulemaking proposing international safety changes? I mean, isn’t a notice enough, umm, notice? What’s next–pre-advance notices of proposed rulemaking?
And to add delay to delay, the FAA agreed last year to extend the comment period on the NPRM another 90 days when a number of alphabet groups–most, if not all, are not even covered by the proposed rule, which applies only to Part 121 operators (separate rulemaking covers SMS for airports, and there’s no proposed FAA rulemaking that I’m aware of for anyone else)–requested an extension to allow more time to respond. Really, can’t the FAA ever just say no to one more delay tactic? Doesn’t it see that we’re losing the safety high ground?
In the meantime no final rule is in sight, and chances are good that any final rule’s compliance date will be months if not years in the future. So, while Transport Canada gets to boast on its SMS website that it leads the world in SMS implementation, the FAA cannot even boast that it requires SMS implementation.
So, yes, a number of airlines are implementing SMS voluntarily, but others are sitting on the fence waiting for a final rule. You can’t totally blame those companies for waiting; their fear, at least in part, is that they’ll spend a lot of time and money implementing a voluntary program and then the rules will change on them and they’ll have to spend more time and more money implementing a different but mandatory program.
But as other countries move forward on SMS mandates and their airlines and other aviation entities implement these programs, what are the implications for the U.S.? If the FAA doesn’t take back the safety high ground and reclaim its gold standard, it’s going to mean trouble for U.S. businesses.
I talked recently to a large repair station owner in the U.S. whose hangars were filled with foreign-registered aircraft. I asked him how he competed with foreign repair stations whose costs are notoriously lower than those in the U.S. He said there are a lot of operators who come here because FAA certification is the gold standard in aviation. And people will pay for that because it increases the value of the aircraft to have it maintained here. So, there’s the economic reason–if pride in being the best isn’t enough these days–for the FAA to fight to keep its safety edge.