AIN Blog: Who Needs the FAA?

 - October 10, 2013, 12:20 AM
View from a business jet
Everyone in aviation is responsible for safety.

While the U.S. government is on a Congress-created enforced shutdown, the aviation industry might be tempted to wonder what the FAA actually accomplishes. What we are learning is that a lot of what the FAA does is process paperwork. And when the paperwork stops flowing, we can be forced to stop flying. There are plenty of examples that have already grounded aircraft and airmen.

Aircraft now need to be reregistered every three years and, as always, when they change owners. Is your aircraft overdue for registration? Good luck with that. Without a legal registration form, it’s grounded. And the consensus seems to be that you cannot use a temporary registration form to keep an airplane flying if it’s due for reregistration.

Need a special issuance medical certificate? Any pilot who has a medical that is tied up in the FAA’s Aerospace Medical Certification Division is out of luck until the FAA gets enough funding to get back to work. I hope your job doesn’t depend on your being able to get your medical certificate in a timely manner.

(Side notefurther evidence that the medical certification system doesn’t prevent fatal incapacitation: tragically, another airline pilot with a valid medical certificate died at the controls during a United Airlines flight on September 27. News reports said that he suffered an acute myocardial infarction.)

What if you’re a pilot who is required to undergo annual recurrent training and you must have a checkride to complete the training? Or you’re about to finish a type rating, but the check airman needs requalification by the FAA? Do you extend your hotel room now and hope that this budget mess gets resolved quickly or return home where maybe you can keep busy sweeping the hangar floor or polishing bugs off leading edges? (You can’t spend any time updating Jeppesen manuals anymore; it’s all electronic these days.)

This problem gets worse for avionics and maintenance shops that depend on FAA input for necessary approvals such as supplemental type certificates, parts manufacturer approvals, field approvals and so on. And what about certification programs for new aircraft?

It’s enough to make you want to tell the FAA, forget about it, we don’t need you. The aviation industry is, after all, the most highly regulated self-regulated industry in the world. No matter how much the FAA tries to make everyone believe that what it does is essential for safety, the incredibly high level of safety that we have achieved is due to the efforts of those who build, operate, fly and maintain aircraft.

We don’t adhere to high levels of quality because we’re afraid the FAA is going to hit us over the head if we don’t perform; we are dedicated to safety because it makes sense, not only from a business standpoint (customers don’t come back if you kill them) but from a moral standpoint. It’s just the right thing to do. No amount of regulatory oversight makes up for a lack of ethical standards on the part of those who actually produce and use the product.

So, do we really need the FAA?

Actually, yes. Government regulation of aviation helped set a high standard in the U.S. and led to key safety developments that have saved thousands, probably millions, of lives. There are so many examples, the most obvious being the air traffic control system, which fortunately has not been affected by the government shutdown. But also important are training, manufacturing, maintenance and operational standards that the FAA has successfully developed and that have helped make aviation so safe.

What the shutdown has shown us, however, is that there are areas where the FAA should just back off and leave us alone, because we can fly safely without FAA intervention. Does it make sense, for example, that an airplane is suddenly not OK to fly because its registration certificate is a day overdue. Come on!

Or, when a highly experienced avionics shop has to repeatedly teach FAA inspectors about technology that the inspector doesn’t begin to understand but feels compelled to regulate, does this make the slightest bit of sense? All this does is hold up revenue-generating, job-creating work.

What about the medical certificate? We know that this system is broken. No pilot in his or her right mind who depends on having a medical to stay employed is going to admit to having a problem, so pilots have a powerful incentive not to tell their doctors about medical issues. And they seek out aviation medical examiners who are known to give an easy exam. There must be a better way to evaluate pilots who are truly at risk, but the FAA doesn’t seem to want to examine this.

Bottom line: there are many ways the FAA could help and not hinder aviation. This shutdown is underlining some of the areas where the agency’s efforts are wasted. Let’s take advantage of this new knowledge and do something about it.