The Allegiant Fargo Fuel case may test the Administrator’s Big, Big Change

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The story of how two Allegiant management pilots had to declare an emergency because they did not have adequate fuel reserves received major media coverage. The title that the FAA is “investigating” the company certainly gave greater publicity to the incident. There is no mention or quote by the FAA of a formal investigation, but the general tone of the stories suggest that the agency may be preparing an enforcement action.

Would a formal enforcement meet the FAA’s new FAA Order 8000.373 policy? That document rearticulates how its lawyers and field investigators respond to such an incident. The Administrator has made it very, very clear that this is a “Big, Big Change” by saying:

“This is what we’re trying to lay out as the guiding framework for how we approach all of our regulatory activities…This is a big cultural change, not just for us at the FAA, but across the entire industry.”

The history of the field personnel suggests that the investigators and lawyers may not immediately follow this strong policy directive.

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The Allegiant case may be a visible test case for Order 8000.373, which establishes:

“When deviations from regulatory standards do 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 to prevent recurrence.”

That text appears to urge the field to seek the “most effective means” to return Allegiant to compliance and to prevent a reoccurrence by the airline.

This is not the first encounter between the FAA and the carrier. Those past interactions may have soured the well.

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Running out of fuel is not a good thing, but as suggested by the two Boeing slides, it is a complex matter. The Circular Slide rule (above) also is testament to the calculation’s complexity, though the math is probably done by a computer. Trying to maximize the safety fuel reserve while minimizing the weight of that load involves calculus, which is never easy.

The FAA will assert that the failure to read the NOTAM, announcing the closure of FAR for a Blue Angels practice shows that the airline has not been attentive to such information. It could also be argued that the airport should have been aware that an Allegiant flight was due near the time frame of the carrier’s arrival.

NOTAMs are standard means of distributing important safety information, but their reliability and distribution are not as substantial as the FAA may claim. Last year the Congress enacted the Pilot’s Bill of Rights (S.1335) and it included this provision, as described by the Senator:

NOTAM Improvement Program

Requires that the FAA undertake a NOTAM Improvement Program, requiring simplification and archival of NOTAMs in a central location. The process by which Notices to Airmen are provided by the FAA has long needed revision. This will ensure that the most relevant information reaches the pilot. Currently, FAA makes pilots responsible for knowledge of pre-flight conditions. Non-profit general aviation groups will make up an advisory panel.

That’s hardly an endorsement that a NOTAM is an infallible reference.

These factors seem to qualify the Fargo Fuel incident as a teachable moment. To work with Allegiant to prevent reoccurrence, like reviewing the NOTAM reception procedures, flight coordination, and reserve fuel calculations:

  • How/where/who receives these messages?
  • How regularly is the NOTAM message site being checked?
  • Obviously FAR was not conscious of the Allegiant flight arrival; how does the company send its schedules to all airports?
  • What are the company procedures for informing airports of flight delays?
  • How can they be improved?
  • Whether a refresher on calculation of fuel reserves (like the Boeing material mentioned above) would be beneficial?
  • How involved are the cockpit crews in the calculation?
  • ?

All of these exercises and maybe more would appear to meet the educational goals of the Administrator’s issuance of the new enforcement policy.

Under these circumstances, Order 8000.373 should be applied. It will be interesting to see whether the field gets the spirit of the Big, Big Change or it’s business as usual.

 

ARTICLE: FAA investigating Allegiant Air passenger jet that nearly ran out of fuel

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