FAA-United Spat over SMS could hamper this new proactive, cooperative approach to Aviation Safety

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The below linked articles may add to the concerns from the airlines, and particularly the lawyers, about a specific instance of the FAA’s implementation of a new collaborative program to increase the aegis of airline operations.

Safety Management System is an innovative concept which holds great promise for reducing risks in aviation. The idea came from the International Civil Aviation and Organization (proposed in 2006) and has been cautiously implemented by the FAA. On January 15, 2015, 14 CFR Part 5 was issued and the mandatory applicability is not until March 8, 2018. Since the promulgation of the NPRM (2009) and in comments submitted to the docket, there have been comments questioning the interface between the information voluntarily submitted by a carrier and possible enforcement action.

SMS was developed as a response to years of criticism that the FAA was reactive, that its actions were driven by the lessons of accidents. The regulatory premise was that the regulated carriers are held to “the highest levels of safety”. The FAA, and Congress, recognized that it was impossible for the inspectors to be present at every flight, every maintenance action, every training class, etc.

Thus, the onus of compliance at all of those critical moments was placed on the regulated, or as it is commonly referred to “voluntary compliance”. Failure to meet those expectations would probably result in FAA enforcement actions (from six /seven figure civil penalties to suspension/revocation of authority). That legal process tended to drive the FAA and the airlines away from useful dialogue about how might things could be improved.

SMS is an attempt (and early returns suggest that the process is working) to get to a more cooperative, proactive atmosphere. The process, very briefly, involves a comprehensive, data driven examination of risks, quantifying them, assessing possible solutions and then implementing them. That review is an ongoing responsibility of the airline and requires a continuous reexamination of the array of solutions and searching for other items to address. The FAA is privy to all of the data and processes; the FAA oversight is shifted from surveilling the airline’s operations to an intense focus of the carrier’s SMS actions.

The FAA has issued a lot of documents about the implementation and application of this new concept. Here is a quote from Order 8000.368 (12/12/12) Flight Standards Oversight Chapter 4. Implementation AFS-1 Expectations of AFS Divisions and Offices:

(f) Voluntary Industry Programs. The FAA believes that aviation safety is best served by providing incentives in order to correct regulatory noncompliance and investing more resources in efforts to preclude recurrence of noncompliance. The FAA recognizes the safety value of a cooperative relationship with the industry, fostering compliance, safety, and the sharing of information that will provide the widest possible safety benefits. A number of policy and guidance documents and voluntary programs reflect this approach. FAA policy will continue to encourage industry participation in these vital collaborative programs. The FAA will continue to apply statutory and regulatory protections from inappropriate disclosure of information supplied under these programs, and will explore methods of integrating these programs and protections when an aviation product/service provider implements an SMS that includes one or more of these programs.

This declares that the target of this approach is to find answers rather than assign blame.

The first article describes United’s response to one of its SMS findings. Specifically, the senior management sent to all pilots a “brutally honest” safety bulletin. The memorandum included the following quotes:

  • “The common thread with all of these is that they are preventable.”

  • “While no one ever shows up to work with the goal of intentionally making a mistake, we are human and mistakes happen. What we can control is how we conduct ourselves on each and every flight.”

  • “As part of our commitment to safety, we constantly monitor flight operations data and regularly communicate the findings with our pilots…Our proactive approach to safety aligns with the FAA’s Safety Management System and enables us to recognize potential issues and adjust our actions to further ensure the safety of our customers and coworkers.”

  • “Reviewing, understanding, and complying with the guidance in company manuals is imperative to returning ourselves, our fellow crewmembers and passengers to their families safely. This is our top priority and greatest responsibility, and we appreciate in advance your continued commitment and cooperation.”

Behind this “public” message, United under SMS should have established policies, procedures and programs to assure that the performance of its pilots were improved from the base line finding of deficiencies. That proposal would have been reviewed by the FAA prior to its being launched. The source of the detected deficiencies and the specific solution (particularly how the remedy would fix the problem) were shared with the FAA personnel involved in the SMS oversight.

The third article below is a public announcement that the FAA is increasing its surveillance of United due to “’systemic’ hazard, requiring United to conduct ‘a complete review of your processes associated with crew member qualification” and develop an “action plan…to mitigate this hazard.’” The FAA knows that such an announcement, characterizing the problem as “serious” is the equivalent to a “civil penalty”; such a pronouncement basically causes passengers to avoid United. It sounds like an old FAA enforcement tactic.

Without seeing what United did under SMS and how the FAA responded to the airline’s proposal, such a public statement does not appear to be consonant with the “cooperative” approach. United has adopted SMS on a voluntary basis and the program’s status is still in the learning phase. If the increased enforcement decision ignored the tenets of this SMS cooperative philosophy, industry may increase its concerns about the FAA’s commitment to “collaboration” and the benefits of a proactive emphasis will be diminished.

The last article chronicles what United has revealed about its “fixes.” Hopefully, this SMS response by United will return this matter to the principles of this new risk reduction and cooperative regime. If not, it is possible that the environment may revert to confrontational and reactive tenor.

ARTICLE: United Airlines Officials Highlight ‘Near-Misses’ in Safety Message to Pilots

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