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FAA investigators assessing mechanics’ complaints may be interpreting regulations differently, CBS News investigation finds


Airline mechanics feel pressured to overlook potential safety problems: “Accident waiting to happen”

[article 2]

[from article 1]

“They blame it on an economic reality of the airline business: a plane only makes an airline money when it’s flying passengers.”

[from article 2]

The FAA’s role as regulator

‘Do you feel like the FAA is doing enough in its role as the oversight here to be policing these maintenance issues?’ Van Cleave asked Santos.

‘They’re in an unenviable position because they have to both police the airline and promote the airline. The fact that the mechanics can be harassed and it’s not considered a regulatory violation – that’s a problem,’ Santos responded.

Mechanics can file complaints with their airline, their union or the FAA, but the FAA office investigating whistleblower complaints can only recommend other offices take follow-up action. CBS News has found indications that FAA investigators may be interpreting regulations differently

[ article 1]

It is hard to believe that an aviation safety professional can honestly say this quote and come to work every day.

[article 2]

  • Several years ago the FAA flight standards team was reorganized to straight line safety decisions from headquarters to the implementing organization.

  • Inconsistency has been a problem for years; with so many staff spread across the country it has been difficult, if not impossible, to have an investigator in Hawai’i agree with her or his colleague in Boston. The CBS investigators might have found that, recognizing the validity of the criticism and further motivated by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA chartered the CONSISTENCY OF REGULATORY INTERPRETATION ARC and then instituted ORDER AFS 8000.RCCB

[the program has been revised several times since this pamphlet.]

The articles several times note that aviation safety has reduced risks significantly in the last few years. Given that the themes of the two stories is that something is very wrong in aviation. A reader might expect to have that anomaly explained. CBS did not.

Noted aviation expert Andy Pasztor did take the time to study this new, state-of-the-art safety regime and explained its benefits

WSJ’s Pasztor exposes the new SMS safety concept to readers

Eighteen months ago, the Wall Street Journal published s thorough and thoughtful explanation about how Safety Management Systems provides a higher level of safety. The new data rich methodology identifies, using high level algorithms, risk. That analysis if then addressed by the FAA, labor and management in collaborative problem solving.

SMS depends upon non-punitive, anonymous submissions by everyone (and the expectations extend from the senior executive to the person hired to sweep the hanger) in the airline which identify/alert  of any possible problem and ABSOLUTELY EACH AND EVERY SAFETY RISK).

Prime examples of what these systems are designed to capture are the very incidents described by CBS:

  • “not record discrepancies, take short cuts… or improperly sign off on work which was not actually completed,”
  • “They’d rather you not report a maintenance issue?” Van Cleave asked.

   “Right,” Santos responded.

  • “If you’re working, say, on a landing gear, lubing it, and you notice that a flap three feet away is leaking, and you write up the flap leak, you’re beyond your scope,” one mechanic said.

There are two existing, robust systems designed to capture ON AN UNATTRIBUTED BASIS such observations. Internally within the company there is Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) or even more remotely there is the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS). Both assure that no punitive action can be taken by the FAA or the airline. The acting Administrator recently reissued the Compliance Philosophy and repeated the assurance of no retaliation.

Corporate posters are visible demonstration of commitment to these principles; Safety Culture can be observed by walking within the workplace. CBS’ eight months within that environment may have provided a better assessment of the environments. Both airlines and the FAA have professed adherence to this regime.

Work in a normal, balanced maintenance floor is stressful. Each AMT bears the immense burden of the passengers depending on the attention to detail of each instruction. It is not unexpected that the manager is pressuring the AMTs to perform efficiently. Thus, it is not surprising that a mechanic feels pushed. Based on the corporate experience of hundreds of years of regulating and working with the FAA, we are not aware of any request by management to skip an essential repair or maintenance step. There are occasions in which the interpretation of what is required may be debated, but releasing an unairworthy airplane is likely to have consequences far greater than the revenue missed by not flying.

One of the most telling paragraphs of the CBS report is the following quote:

“In 2015 the FAA moved from focusing on enforcement to compliance and relying heavily on the airline’s own safety programs to meet FAA standards. Since 2014 the number of enforcement actions against airlines has dropped roughly 70 percent.

“Do you think there’s a willingness by the FAA to come down hard on an airline?” Van Cleave asked.

‘The inspectors in the FAA are out there doing their jobs when they can do it, but then you’ve got the oversight or the control of the top of the FAA, saying we’re not going to persecute [SIC][1], we’re not going to fine,’ one mechanic said.”

Andy Pasztor understands the rational of why a Compliance Program has seen a 70% decrease in enforcement actions. The goal of the SMS is not to find fault but to use the incidents to reduce the risk of repeated problems. The insinuation that the reduction in “persecution” is a bad thing suggests that the persons asking the question and answering have no idea what compliance means.




[1] This may be a typographical error or a Freudian slip. The FAA has never had the power to “PERSECUTE” or even prosecute. The sanctions authorized by statute are civil penalties. If there is a criminal violation and prosecute is the appropriate verb, the US Department of Justice tries those cases. Not to give the quote more credit for thought than it may be due, but the adjective ‘fine” would be apt to describe what the FAA may do under its civil penalty power, “to fine” (double entrendre?).


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