FAA Air Methods Sanction
Air Method’s Commitment to Safety Management Systems (SMS)
Forbes recently reported on an FAA enforcement decision. Here is its summary:
“The Federal Aviation Administration announced a proposed civil penalty of $892, 500 against Air Methods AIRM -2.36% Corp. for allegedly flying an Airbus EC-135 helicopter on 51 passenger-carrying flights when it was in an unsafe condition for flight. According to the FAA’s statement today, an FAA inspector in Tampa, Florida conducting an inspection of the aircraft discovered that the “pitot tubes were severely corroded.” Pitot tubes are critical aircraft components that are used to measure an aircraft’s speed.
The FAA asserts that Air Methods was ‘immediately notified…about the corrosion’. Notwithstanding the notification, the agency alleges that Air Methods flew 51 flights with passengers from November 4 to November 11, 2014 without repairing or replacing the pitot tubes. As a result of these flights with corroded pitot tubes, the FAA charges that Air Methods ‘operated the helicopter when it was unairworthy; in violation of its operations specifications; after it failed to correct a known defect in the aircraft: and in a careless or reckless manner that endangered lives and property.’ Air Methods has 30 days to respond to the FAA’s enforcement.”
That’s an absolutely accurate description of the FAA’s action and the next step, the response for Air Methods, should further explain this dispute.
There is more to this report than these facts; this decision should be placed into the broader context of the FAA’s emerging policy to work with, rather than against, the regulated.
The FAA has embarked on a promising new approach to reaching the highest levels of safety. After decades of assessing civil penalties as a deterrent for failure to comply with the FARs, the Administrator and the Associate Administrator, in a series of high level policy statements, declared a new philosophy emphasizing compliance and cooperation.
One of the critical foundations of this dramatic innovation is the FAA and the airlines adoption of Safety Management System. That is a state-of-the-art discipline which uses massive data collections to define potential trends and which is then evaluated by a team including the FAA. There is a very logical connection between the adoption of SMS and the new compliance/cooperation philosophy.
As with any transition in policies issued from headquarters but applied locally, the line from inception to final implementation is not always straight. Industry is watching the FAA’s actions to see if the SMS cooperation is REALLY linked to the new Compliance Program.
The Air Methods case is particularly compelling. This helicopter company operates out of 300 bases serving 48 states. Air Methods supports the airworthiness of its aircraft from eight maintenance centers of excellence throughout the nation and a national communications center.
With such a large and diverse network, Air Methods was an early adopter of SMS in the HEMS sector. Here is its own description of management’s, pilots’ and all staff’s commitment to this program:
In 2009, Air Methods entered the FAA SMS voluntary implementation program, which is overseen and evaluated directly by the FAA. The intent of the “Level Status” is to allow aviation service providers to implement an SMS in a standardized manner and to allow recognition of each level of accomplishment. The “Level Status” is part of the SMS maturity model which includes five phases: Level 0: Orientation & Commitment; Level 1: Planning and Organization; Level 2: Reactive Processes; Level 3: Proactive Processes; and Level 4: Continuous Improvement.
In May 2013, we reached the highest level (Level 4) of the FAA’s voluntary Safety Management System (SMS) program. The SMS program is an organizational framework created and implemented by the FAA to systematically guide, track, and provide recognition for safety efforts by commercial air operators. Level 4, the continuous improvement stage, is the final phase of implementation. With this milestone, Air Methods joins the elite company of only seven other commercial air operators (including major U.S. airlines) in the nation to reach this final level, and currently is the only helicopter company and air medical provider to hold this distinction.
We not only support safety concepts and the value, but have demonstrated the commitment during the past six years by investing more than $100 million in advancing and incorporating safety programs and technologies into our operations.
Our Safety Commitment
Air Methods is the first helicopter air medical operator to participate in the FAA’s SMS voluntary implementation program, and currently one to reach the highest level.
Learn more about SMS
Operations Control Center (OCC)
That certainly sounds like Air Methods bought into and achieved the highest level of SMS. Based on Notice 8900.343 , Order 8000.373 and a number of related pronouncements, the Compliance Policy appears to be applicable. The description of the communication between the FAA and Air Methods is bereft of any words suggesting compliance and coordination.
It is very difficult to track the FAA’s enforcement trends since the implementation of the new policies. The most recent reports are a mixture of cases which predate SMS, which involve certificate revocations, which include certificate holders without SMS and which may include other aberrant factors. Consequently it is difficult to graph the FAA actual actions under the new Compliance Philosophy coupled with SMS.
Air Methods was a leader in SMS based on its level 4 attainment; so the public documents between the regulated and the regulator may provide some definitive marks on the tracking graph, such as:
- Was the violation so egregious that it was outside of compliance boundaries?
- Did the absence of Air Methods’ response to the pitot tube problem break the SMS-compliance link?
- Did the FAA field team ignore the policy?
- Something else?
The public pleadings should answer these questions.