AIN Blog: A Much Better Way To Do Aviation's Business

 - February 7, 2014, 9:35 AM
Hawker 4000s
Did the delays in the Hawker 4000's certification program help make the jet safer or help cause the eventual bankruptcy of Hawker Beechcraft? (Photo: Matt Thurber)

The job of an FAA inspector must be incredibly boring. I imagine them sitting at their desks all day facing down gigantic piles of paper: letters of authorization, certification compliance packages, applications for operating certificates, enforcement actions, ad infinitum. And when the beleaguered inspector gets one pile stamped, signed and delivered, an FAA factotum appears with a new stack and thumps it onto whatever clear space remains in the office. Every day, looking up blearily from the stacks, our overworked inspector looks fondly out the window and wonders whether she can take a few minutes away from the office to visit the airport and see if her charges are playing nice or need some friendly nudging.

But no, she has become inured to the needs of her customers, the pilots, mechanics, repair stations, charter operators and airlines that she oversees. Her biggest pleasure these days is finding a missing comma or misspelled word, so she can send the package of paper back to the applicant for revision and resubmission, which at least gets it off the desk for a while.

This is the system that we–the aviation industry–have created. We must like it because we put up with it. But is it effective? Does burying our aviation safety inspectors in mounds of paper actually promote and enhance safety? Isn’t there a better way to put all these talented people to better use?

Of course there is, but it would require a radical re-thinking of the way we manage this entire regulatory-industrial complex. The solution, however, is extremely simple and would have an enormous, unprecedented and welcome impact on aviation safety.

Here it is: assume that any entity that has to comply with FAA regulations does so but verify compliance by observation and oversight.  

Wait a minute? Isn’t that the way it already works?

Sort of. When I rent an airplane and go flying, I’m not required the get the FAA’s permission each time. I am required to comply with the regulations and I try my best to do so, although I’m sure there are some that I occasionally miss. But the FAA basically puts the burden of compliance on my shoulders. 

But let’s take this a step further. Buy a business jet and one of the first obstacles to operating that jet is the need to get RVSM approval so you can fly above 29,000 feet (and burn less fuel). The process is that you have to create an RVSM training and maintenance manual (assuming the airplane is properly equipped), then submit that manual to your local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), where it often sits for weeks waiting for an overworked inspector to look it over and give it a stamp of approval. Operators have complained for years that the RVSM process is a burden, that it doesn’t enhance safety, that FAA inspectors could spend their time on more important pursuits and that the approval process should be eliminated. The FAA disagrees and swears that it will never change the RVSM process.

What if you could create the RVSM manual for your new jet, email it to the FSDO then go flying right away? If the FAA didn’t like anything about it, they could call you back at any time or come visit and ask you to fix the problem. But the assumption, from the start, would be that you, the operator, have every incentive to comply with the regulations and that you did whatever was necessary to write your RVSM manual properly, perhaps even hiring a consultant to help. How is this any different than the FAA assuming that you are in compliance when you push the thrust levers forward every time you take off? Do you need FAA approval for everything that you do? Of course not, but you do have to comply with the regulations.

Let’s take this to the ultimate conclusion: issuance of an operating certificate. Applicants for new Part 135 charter certificates complain that it takes the FAA sometimes up to two years to issue approval. Why not make approval contingent on compliance, not on the whims of an FAA inspector who has way too much paperwork to plough through? In other words, the applicable rules are in Part 135; comply with them in a legally provable fashion and you’re good to go. This same philosophy, by the way, could easily apply to certification of aircraft and parts.

I can hear the naysayers firing up their keyboards already. This will never work, they’ll claim. People with substandard ethics will use this to subvert the regulations. Illegal charters will soar. Operators won’t even bother with proper RVSM compliance. Mechanics and pilots will pencil-whip logbooks. Someone will make fake parts.

Oh, really? Like all of that doesn’t happen already. And when was the last time you saw an FAA inspector crack down on illegal charter or false logbook entries? The fact is, FAA inspectors spend so much time in their offices with paperwork that they have little or no time to interact with those who they try to regulate. The focus of the FAA has been way too much on correct grammar instead of safe operations.

Look, I know that a high level of regulatory compliance is concomitant with a high level of safety; we’ve proved that over and over. But I also know that if a business depends on keeping its customers safe, then it has a big incentive to do the right thing and not cut corners.

Yes, there are those who will always try to find a way around a regulation or just do the bare minimum to be in compliance. And how many times have you complained that the FAA should spend more time looking at the bare-minimums operators instead of those that understand how compliance makes them safer and stronger?

Under this system, the operators, pilots, mechanics, manufacturers and so on would still have to do just as much work as they do now. But once they can prove that they have met the regulation, whether it’s RVSM or a test package for a certification program or even launching a new charter company, then it’s full steam ahead, but with the proviso that the FAA is free to intervene at any time. The FAA, in turn, would have to prove noncompliance with a specific regulation, not something that an inspector makes up just because he or she feels like it.

This system would unleash a torrent of new aviation businesses, make people want to fly more and improve safety because FAA inspectors would spend all of their time in the field instead of in their offices in paperwork oblivion.

Isn’t it time for a change?


jmilavic's picture

The effectiveness of the FAA Field Ofice ASI has diminished significantly over the past twenty five years. Public safety is no longer a priority within the bureacracy of the FAA. Statistics gathered through mounds of electronic paperwork programs to justify positions and grades is now the main focus in Flight Standards. It is felt by many within knowledgable FAA Flight Standards ASIs that if their contribution to improve treaveling public safety is no longer a concer of the FAA tehn by all means shut down all regulatopry functions and allow the aviation community to self-regulate.  However, if indeed the FAA desires to comply with their congressioanl mandate supported by statutory laws then it must accept its responsibilites to enforce regulations and standards through the technically qualifed, competent and effective Aviations Safety Inspector work force willing to interface with the aviation public.

I once applied to be an FAA Avionics Inspector. I was actually offered a position and, before accepting it, I spent a day at the office with our Avionics Inspector. After finding out that the job was mainly a paperwork job, not checking installations (like the terrible ones I found and had to correct as an avionics shop manager) I refused the appointment and pursued the matter no farther. I would have gone insane within two months doing virtually nothing but paperwork instead of really rooting out the bad apples in the field.

Yes - change things so that the paperwork is less than 50% of the job and more of it is really looking at what shops do. People like me (over 20 years ago) would love to do that.

Your proposal makes perfect sense (which is probably why it would have no chance of implementation).  The industry is suffering terribly from inconsistent interpretation of rules by different FSDOs, an overabundance of paperwork, and some very problematic regulations.

I think your idea is fantastic.  Question is, how do you get the FAA on board?  They make the rules, interpret the rules, and enforce those rules.  That's a lot of power, and they've got no incentive whatsoever to cede the slightest bit of it.  So it takes years to obtain a new 135 certificate, so what?  It's no skin off their back.  As long as that's their perspective, change of any positive kind will be hard to come by.  Much like the OSA relief, it will literally take an act of Congress.  Perhaps that's where we should focus our energy?

jmilavic's picture

Interest and concerns expressed by readers of this blog can influence the FAA to eliminate or at least reduce safety inadequacies because of fraud, waste and abuse within Flight Standards. I can assure all, that there are many FAA Field Aviation Safety Inspectors more than willing to serve the public if allowed by Headquarters management. The disconnect exists between Washington DC, some Oklahoma City Staff managers and the field. I have sat and listened to Headquarters and Staff Flight Standards persons express comments like “Field Inspectors are unnecessary evils we have to put with”.
There is now a new Flight Standards Director that appears to be concerned about the problems within his Directorate. Because of the immensity of his directorate and the ingrained less than qualified Safety Inspectors on his staff he will be limited in his efforts. Hopefully he will once again require Inspectors to receive relative training in their respective fields to enable them to knowledgably exercise regulatory oversight of their clients. It is also hoped the demands of the Airlines to provide free travel privileges to Inspectors be eliminated immediately.

If the government operated efficiently and fired all of the unneeded people that push paper around to justify thier salary and retirement benefits, the unemployment rate could be 50%. Back in the late 1970s, I was a national bank pilot and flew the bank CEO and his son to Washington National Airport from NC. The CEO wanted me to accompany his 11 year old son on a tour of the Air & Space Museum while he was conducting business, so I rode in the taxi from the airport into town with eh CEO and his son. The son started noticing the large number of office buildings lining the streets while riding into town and asked his Dad what the buildings were used for. His Dad replied the buildings were government office building used by government workers. The son asked why the govenrment needed so many buildings. The Dad said the purpose of government was self-perpetuation, meaning that for every government building built for workers, the government needed another building for supervisors and another to monitor the supervisors, etc., etc. About that time, the bank's Chief Pilot, who had lived in Washington and worked for the government, gave me two books, The Peter Principle and Parkinson's Law, which were written back in the 1950s. These books helped me understand the real purpose of government and how government funtions to support and perpetuate itself. Government is simply a beast that must be fed. Plato's Republic helped me understand how and why government was designed to work also. Government is a good idea and has its place but government primarily is designed to help the ruling class rule over the people. The FAA sounds like it was designed or its operational concept originated in Plato's Republic in 350 BC.

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