Torqued: The FAA Needs to Listen to Aviation Workers, Too

 - May 2, 2016, 5:30 AM

With the changes last year to the FAA’s compliance philosophy, listening to frontline workers when they raise safety concerns has become even more critical for aviation businesses. In terms of FAA enforcement, the new philosophy makes clear that aviation entities that find and correct their own problems will fare much better than entities that don’t when it comes to FAA legal enforcement. Legal enforcement generally involves civil penalties or punitive certificate suspensions, but can also include cease-and-desist and emergency remedial orders. The policy, announced in June last year, states that when deviations from regulatory standards occur, “the FAA’s goal is to use the most effective means to return an individual or entity that holds an FAA certificate, approval, authorization, permit or license to full compliance and prevent recurrence.”

I highlighted the most effective means because here lies the crux of the new philosophy. [To be fair, the philosophy isn’t totally new. Elements of it can be found in the agency’s Voluntary Disclosure Program for air carriers, repair stations and manufacturers and the Aviation Safety Action Programs for some air carrier and repair station employees.] If an aviation entity or its workers violate the FARs for reasons such as “flawed procedures, simple mistakes, lack of understanding or diminished skills,” the FAA is going to give you an enforcement pass if you have a program to do “root cause analysis and training, education or other appropriate improvements to procedures or training programs…which are documented and verified to ensure effectiveness.” Basically, this means finding your own problems, figuring out why they happened, fixing them and then making sure that your fix worked. Of course this enforcement philosophy ties in with the FAA’s emphasis on using safety management systems to do exactly this: identify hazards, assess risks and ensure that mitigation measures are effective. SMS programs have been adopted by operators large and small, although they were only recently mandated for Part 121 airlines. 

You can’t do any of this very well if you don’t listen to your frontline workers. After all, they are most often the proverbial canaries in the coal mines of aviation, warning about issues and concerns before the incident or accident occurs. So while the FAA’s enforcement philosophy squarely puts the burden on regulated entities to find and fix their problems–in large part by listening to what their workers are telling them or they miss out on the enforcement benefit if any regulations are violated–will the agency similarly start placing greater emphasis on investigating safety complaints from aviation workers that are brought to its attention? 

What got me thinking about this was reading the Senate’s version of the 2016 FAA Reauthorization Act. It’s that season of FAA reauthorization with the House and Senate proposing vastly different bills. Last month I discussed my opposition to the House version with its proposed privatizing of air traffic control. I believe the airspace is a public domain and that its control should remain a government function. But the House’s proposal was especially disturbing because it put so much power in just one segment of airspace users, the airlines. So while the sponsors of the bill emphasized that the corporation would be a nonprofit, it would effectively be run by for-profit interests. But I digress.

Foreign Repair Station Concerns

This month, I’ve been reading what the Senate side would like to see the FAA do in its reauthorization bill. I read these bills–this one runs 289 pages–to see what Congress is planning so I can have my say before it’s too late. And to some extent, so you, my readers, won’t have to. Although I admit, I skim a lot. One thing I’m always struck by when I read these bills is how detailed the directives to the FAA are. Congress really does like to micromanage the agency. But before you start feeling too bad for the FAA, some micromanagement seems well justified. 

So, here’s a section of the proposed bill that struck me. Section 2502 addresses repair stations located outside the U.S., a point of contention for many years, partially because of the jobs that many believe were siphoned overseas but also because the quality of the work was often not up to U.S. standards. The bill would require the FAA to ensure that its safety assessment system not only “places particular consideration on inspections of [foreign] Part 145 repair stations” that perform heavy maintenance for Part 121 airlines but also “accounts for the frequency and seriousness of any corrective actions that Part 121 air carriers must implement to aircraft” following repairs at foreign repair stations.

Of course, it should be obvious to anyone, certainly the agency charged with the safety oversight of the airline industry, that if airlines have to do a lot of serious rework of maintenance accomplished by foreign repair stations there’s a problem. It doesn’t take a maintenance expert to tell you that if work frequently comes back from repairs abroad needing to be corrected or if there are serious discrepancies between the maintenance done and the air carrier’s manual requirements, the FAA’s assessment of those foreign repair stations should be tracking that. Obvious as it may be, it has been a complaint of U.S. airline workers for years.

To earn this very direct statutory requirement the FAA has pretty much ignored many of the complaints coming from frontline maintenance workers or their representatives. To a great extent the agency has turned a deaf ear to repeated complaints that work coming from foreign repair stations needed significant re-work to put the aircraft in compliance with FARs. Often, workers are told–I’ve been told this myself–that the worker complaints are “union-management” disputes. Or, the worker is a “disgruntled” employee.

Well, it seems the Senate is telling the FAA to listen up. Even if these workers are “biased” against foreign repair stations or “disgruntled” employees, that doesn’t make them liars or their complaints untrue. If the FAA perceives a complaint to be biased, it should do what every investigator does when a witness is partial to one side or the other: corroborate the statement. Maintenance has a paper trail. If re-work was done, it will be documented. 

But most important, the FAA needs to start listening to aviation workers regardless of whether they work in a hangar, on the ramp, a cockpit, a cabin, an airport or even in an office cubicle. Especially when they take the time to file hotline complaints. Just as the FAA expects aviation employers to listen to frontline worker concerns, it needs to do the same. It shouldn’t take a directive from Congress to achieve that.