FAA Investigation of ‘Harlem Shake’ Demonstrates that Traffic Cop Approach does NOT Enhance Aviation Safety

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ARTICLE: ‘Harlem Shake’ Draws FAA Investigation

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In the well-known Congressional hearings in 2008, led by comments of Representative Lipinski then, the FAA enforcement approach has followed the Representatives’ analogy and has treated aviation safety with a traffic cop mentality. The result is that the investigators are more interested in writing tickets than enhancing voluntary compliance. John Allen, FAA’s Director of Flight Standards has announced a policy that seeks to balance the “law enforcement” function with the FAA’s safety mission.

No better example of the vestiges of Lipinski lessons is the FAA investigating a silly, single incident when some college kids danced in the aisles of an airplane.

An investigation means that sequester-limited FAA human resources will be unleashed to determine what FARs were violated (Interfere with Flight Attendant duties14CFR 121.580? Was the seat belt sign illuminated? 14 CFR 121.317(f)) . Under normal procedures, someone will obtain a set of the airline’s applicable manuals, get certified copies of the video, request from the carrier the names of the cockpit and cabin crews, require that they receive the CVR to determine what commands were given by the crew, demand that the airline provide a list of the passengers seated in the rows where the Shake occurred, try to determine who the offenders were (ask the college for pictures of the members of the team and match them up?), request to interview the crew members, dancers and witnesses and then write a detailed report. What a waste of time and effort!

Weeks or months later, a nasty letter addressed to the airline, the crew members and possibly passenger/perpetrators will ask for their comments on why they did not violate some rules. This Letter of Investigation will have a press release issued simultaneously. The targets of the investigation will respond in the proscribed time. Then it would be decided what sanctions would be appropriate for the violations.

Another FAA public affairs officer will write it up and prepare for an avalanche of negative press inquiries. The safety lesson that is the real point of the investigation will be lost in the editorials criticizing the dragnet attack on an innocent prank. Even worse, if no Enforcement Action is taken, the press pundits will take that dismissal for an opportunity to ridicule the FAA.

Assuming that some regulation was transgressed, would not safety be best served by an immediate statement by an authoritative FAA representative. The quick, direct message—that whatever actions contravened the rules were “wrong” and will be prosecuted the next time that a “Harlem Shake” occurs on board. The valid safety point would get immediate public attention and the likelihood that such a problematic event would be repeated during a flight would be nil!

Which action serves safety better—the Lipinski investigation technique or an immediate, warning public statement?

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