Year in Review: Culture Change Marks Huerta's FAA Legacy

 - January 5, 2018, 4:30 AM
Over his five-year term as FAA Adminstrator, Michael Huerta has reshaped the U.S. aviation agency from being prescriptive and enforcement-based to one of collaboration, risk-based and compliance oriented. (Photo: NBAA)

Michael Huerta set the stage for 2017—the last year of his five-year term as FAA administrator—proclaiming that a new rule would “usher in a new era” for general aviation safety and innovation. That rule, released at the end of 2016 and formally implemented August 30, was the sweeping rewrite of Part 23 rules governing the certification of light aircraft.

The rewrite was more than a tweak or update of certification rules. It was a sea change for the agency, a culmination of an evolving culture that once was prescriptive and enforcement-based to one of collaboration, risk-based and compliance oriented. It was a recognition that there is more than one way to accomplish a task.

“Instead of telling manufacturers how to build airplanes, we’re defining the safety goals we want to achieve and giving industry the freedom to come up with innovative solutions,” the administrator told an audience at the 2017 edition of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, describing the changes. “This approach will allow us to get safety technologies off the drawing board and into planes more quickly.”

After a decade in the making and months of preparation, the new rule moves the FAA away from its long practice of establishing detailed prescriptive standards for new products. Under the new rule, which targets aircraft weighing 19,000 pounds or less and with 19 or fewer passenger seats, the agency establishes the performance objectives for new products and gives the manufacturer flexibility on how it meets those objectives. It also paves the way for the agency to work with industry and international regulators on consensus standards.

“With these performance-based standards, the FAA delivers on its promise to implement forward-looking, flexible rules that encourage innovation,” the agency said in announcing the rule’s implementation. “This regulatory approach recognizes there is more than one way to deliver on safety.”

During his farewell address before the Aero Club of Washington in November, Huerta described the depths of the change. “One of my favorite moments happened a few years ago, when we first began to get serious about changing the way we certify new general aviation aircraft,” Huerta said. He recalled how Dorenda Baker, the executive director of the aircraft certification service, outlined the changes to him, beginning her presentation, with “All right, so you said it was OK to break some china…” When Baker was finished, Huerta asked the FAA team if they really wanted to go down that road. “They all agreed,” he said, “’Not only do we want to, we have to.’”

Ripple Effects of Change

The Part 23 rewrite is a template that is expected to trickle into other aspects of the agency to the extent practical. The FAA already is looking at aspects that could be applied to Parts 27 and 29 governing helicopter certification, and Huerta has, for years, indicated a long-term goal would be to apply to areas of Part 25 governing large aircraft.

But it also is only one area of the ongoing changes at the agency, Huerta has noted over the past year. He points to the congressionally mandated BasicMed rule that was released on January 10 and implemented May 1, providing recreational pilots the opportunity to see their own doctors every four years and take an online medical training course rather than the more regimented requirements of maintaining a third-class medical.

Within the first three months of implementation, Huerta reported, more than 14,000 people had already completed online training and were allowed to fly under BasicMed. But Huerta told the pilot community, “There’s this misperception out there that dealing with our medical team is the first step toward losing your license.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re not adversaries. We want you to be able to keep flying. We just want to work with you to figure out a way to do it safely.”

This new flexibility also comes with FAA’s Compliance Philosophy, implemented in recent years. “Make no mistake,” Huerta told attendees at NBAA’s annual convention in October. “We’re still the regulator…But we came to recognize that a collaborative approach—an approach based on trust, respect and a shared commitment to putting safety first—is necessary for us to achieve a safer and more efficient system.”

The philosophy marks a shift from automatic enforcement to finding ways to address inadvertent non-compliance issues. The philosophy, he said, “recognizes that to find and fix safety problems, there has to be an open and transparent exchange of information and data between the FAA and industry.”

As a result, the FAA has cut enforcement actions by 70 percent and at the same time corrected thousands of issues, Ali Bahrami, the FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, reported during the 2017 edition of Bombardier’s Safety Standdown.

During this past year, the administrator also repeatedly highlighted the need for partnership in NextGen with a stern warning that industry must carry its end of the bargain. Stressing that the 2020 deadline for ADS-B Out equipage would not change, he told operators “Manufacturers have done their part. The FAA has done its part. Now it’s time to do yours.” The FAA even developed a rebate program to help promote equipage—and despite Huerta’s urging “don’t leave this money on the table”—as much as one-third of rebate money remained unclaimed when the program expired last fall.

By mid-fall, Huerta reported during a GA safety summit that just under 31,000 general aviation aircraft currently have ADS-B installations that comply with the mandate. “To put it simply: we’re just not where we want to be a little more than two years out from the deadline,” he said.

That summit, however, also produced some far more encouraging news from Huerta, who said 2017 was headed toward being the safest year yet for general aviation. “The fatal accident rate continues to decline, far below our target rate of one per 100,000 flight hours. This is a significant accomplishment,” he said.

Huerta credited this improvement to the industry/government collaboration that has focused on key safety issues and highlighted them throughout industry.

Huerta’s tenure at the agency is set to end January 6. He stepped in as deputy administrator in 2010 and then was sworn in to a five-year term as administrator in early 2013. During his farewell address to the Aero Club, Huerta reminisced about the changes that had occurred during his seven years at the agency. He also outlined a vision for the future that could be dramatically different, with new models such as eVTOL air taxis, autonomous flight and drones sharing the airspace.

Aviation is on the cusp of the “next great age,” he proclaimed, and said the FAA needs to change to be ready.

“We also couldn’t just think about making technological changes, although there were many in the works. We also needed to think about changing the culture inside the FAA,” he said. “Things clearly had to move faster. And the only way forward was to foster a more constructive relationship with the aviation community.”