FAA Crackdown: Is Agency a Friend or Foe?

 - May 24, 2010, 10:10 AM

In AIN’s upcoming June issue, we raise the question of whether new FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt is cracking down extra hard on the aviation industry. The question came up because the FAA seems to have publicized a growing number of enforcement cases against airlines and general aviation operators since Babbitt came onboard last June. Each of the cases includes substantial civil penalties, which might end up negotiated to smaller amounts.

While the overall volume of enforcement doesn’t seem to have grown, it does seem apparent that Babbitt is trying to get the industry’s attention.

The public relations effort and big proposed penalties show the public that the FAA is doing its job. The way the FAA is catching operators serves as a warning that the FAA is watching and isn’t going to put up with what it contends are clear examples of rulebreaking.

Be warned: FAA inspectors are poring through maintenance records in an effort to catch violations of regulations.

As always, the agency contends that all of these violations are a serious danger to the passengers on these aircraft. But in reading through the source documents for some of these cases, it is clear that some FAA inspectors have questionable skills as evaluators of regulatory compliance.

Consider the case of the American Eagle Bombardier regional jet with an Airworthiness Directive on the main landing gear doors. The AD requires that the doors be inspected for cracks and if cracks are found, the doors must be removed for repair. Apparently someone repaired the doors in situ, thus violating the letter of the law and generating the $2.9 million civil penalty, which grew each time the airplane in question carried passengers (1,178 flights). Do we know the rest of the story? Did Bombardier issue a Service Bulletin that allowed for repairs without removing the doors? Did the FAA official who wrote the AD perhaps use the word “remove” incorrectly in the AD? Was there real risk involved in what might have been a simple case of misinterpreting an AD? Or was this situation as egregious as the mechanics who in the 1970s erred in the installation procedure for a DC-10 engine, only to learn, tragically, that it caused the engine mount to crack and an engine to fall off?

In another recent case involving an applicant for a Part 141 flight school, FAA inspectors examining two of the school’s airplanes found some serious problems, like a cracked aileron filled with body putty. I’d like to meet the mechanic who thought that was a good idea. But in the same enforcement document, the FAA also listed “worn carpet” as an equally serious issue. Does the FAA really expect the industry to take it seriously when an inspector equates worn carpet with something truly problematic like a cracked and puttied aileron that could easily cause flutter and an in-flight breakup?

What We Can We Learn From This

Watch out! The FAA was hugely embarrassed by the shocking lack of professionalism evident in the interaction of the crew who caused the fatal Colgan Air crash, not to mention the captain’s deficient training. And it appears that the agency’s rank and file have been told to look closely at operators for any kind of rule violation.

The big question is whether the FAA’s efforts enhance safety. I am glad that the Piper Warrior with the puttied aileron was grounded. And I dearly hope the FAA follows up to make sure it’s fixed properly. But are the skies safer because the FAA wants to penalize American Eagle $2.9 million for not removing the landing gear doors before repairing the cracks? I don’t think so.

And I do think the FAA could truly improve safety by working with Bombardier and American Eagle to make sure the wording for the door repair is consistent, clearly understandable and not a source of “gotcha” enforcement.

So, Administrator Babbitt, we would like to know: should the aviation industry be afraid of you, or should we want to work with you?