FAA Record Airport Fine and new Compliance Policy may help move the Part 139 holders to SMS

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It was announced that Cleveland Hopkins International Airport was fined $735,000, a record civil penalty issued by the FAA against an airport. This approach to encouraging safety reflects an old punitive approach. The new way to foster the proper management of most aviation firms is based on much different premises and does not use such sanctions as its primary tool. Maybe, now, airports will stop dragging their feet on Safety Management Systems implementation.

The allegations, contained in four letters to CLE’s Acting Director, provide a useful background for this discussion, but the focus is not on the truth of the FAA’s complaint or of CLE’s answers thereto. Here is a brief review of what the regulator believes happened:

  • “…airport’s field maintenance crew was understaffed on all shifts – with only four out of the required 18 maintenance operators working third shift – despite a forecast calling for several inches of snow.”
  • “… snow and ice accumulated on runways, pilots refused to land, reporting poor braking conditions, and one taxiway went without anti-icing chemicals until well after midnight, the FAA…”
  • “…failed to alert air carriers of the poor conditions and to deter planes from taxiing or landing on slick, hazardous surfaces…”
  • “airport supervisors…when they failed to hold over any maintenance staff to help workers clear snow during the next shift.”
  • “City of Cleveland had no maintenance personnel to operate any equipment at CLE…”
  • “…no maintenance workers were on duty when United Airlines and Delta flights remained stranded on their respective taxiways, unable to use their brakes on the slick pavement…”
  • “The Delta flight was disabled until workers arrived for their next scheduled shift at 3 a.m. and hand-shoveled sand around the aircraft’s wheels…”
  • “…snow accumulated and temperatures plummeted below freezing, a United Parcel Service flight could not brake on the icy runway and was diverted to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport…”
  • “Two eight is the only runway we have open right now,” a Cleveland air traffic controller told the pilot, according to the FAA. “But there haven’t been any plows on it, we don’t have any, uh, conditions on that.”
  • “…maintenance crews failed to treat one taxiway with either sand or deicing chemicals. As a result, an aircraft slid onto the runway when another flight was cleared for take-off…”

An airport is an integral element of the National Aviation System. As with the carriers (14 CFR Parts 121 and 135) and general aviation (Part 91) planes, which fly to and from these airfields, the runways, taxiways, gates, terminals, perimeter fences and other functions are regulated by 14 CFR Part 139.


Meeting the highest levels of safety is the goal of each segment of this system. Historically, the responsibility of complying by all certificated entities was voluntary (i.e. the regulator acknowledged that 100% surveillance was not possible). The regulated was expected to attain that goal, but knew that failure to reach those expectations might result in FAA Enforcement penalties.

The FAA initiated a new regulatory regime and SMS is in the last stages of implementation as to carriers. Consistent with the non-punitive, information sharing and date driven elements of SMS, the FAA has backed off of civil penalties as being the primary whip to encourage airline compliance. The FAA Administrator recently issued FAA Compliance PolicyFAA Order 8300.373, which made it clear to all of his divisions that the future is a kinder, gentler approach. To make sure that the recalcitrant Flight Standards field personnel heard the message, soon thereafter Order N8900.323 was distributed to all 1,500 inspectors with very explicit to take a collaborative, cooperative approach which starts with a root cause analysis and seeks positive solutions. Civil penalties of $735,000 are not the primary goal, but it remains to be seen whether a field will follow headquarters directives.

The airport industry is on track to start to become part of the SMS world sometime in 2016. For a variety of good reasons, the industry has been reluctant to adopt this 360° approach to safety. Perhaps the imposition of a record penalty may expedite the transition, especially with the hopes of the more proactive discipline of FAA Order 8300.373 and Order N8900.323.

The CLE story may be instructive about the value of SMS. If the concerns about inadequate resources, which the statement of former Airfield Maintenance Director Abdul-Malik appear to be the source of the FAA critique, identification of such a risk should have been assessed a team drawn from every discipline of the CLE organization. The theory is that the SMS 360° team might be able to move dollars around to allocate the machinery, chemicals and people needed to respond to the snow falls to come. Even if there were minor problems with the winter operations, the blanket of a well-run SMS might have mitigated against the dollar penalties.


CLE’s Director at the time of the problems cited by the FAA is gone and there is an acting replacement. Hopefully either Acting Director of Airports Fred Szabo or his permanent replacement will establish a robust use of this state-of-the art technique. Also this well publicized event and the heavy financial consequences will catch the attention of the Part 139 universe. If they review the FAA’s new compliance approach, adopted to support SMS, they might welcome this more cooperative, collaborative method to achieve compliance.


ARTICLE: FAA slaps Cleveland Hopkins Airport with $735K fine for unsafe runway conditions in snowstorms

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