House Aviation Subcommittee holds Important Hearing on Certification Challenges

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Review of FAA’s Certification Process: Ensuring an Efficient, Effective, and Safe Process


The Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee called a hearing on Certification. That is seemingly an mundane matter , but the statements by the Chair, the Ranking Member and the witnesses plus the dialogue between the Members and those called to testify provided valuable insights into the FAA’s challenges for the foreseeable future The transcript will include both Congressional concerns and expert opinions on   critical safety issues like-

  • The reliability of the Organizational Designation Authority (ODA)
  • The difficulty of surveillance and inspection of the certificate holders requiring more strategic focus by greater reliance by the FAA on system safety risk based tools;
  • Inconsistency between and among FAA ACOs, FSDOs, Regions and Headquarters;
  • Retaliation for seeking reviews at the regional and headquarters level;
  • The need for clearer and more precise metrics in implementation of headquarters guidance in the field
  • Whether the FAA is still the global gold standard of certification throughout the globe; and
  • Other major topics. (too many to be adequately reported here)

The hearing began with Mr. LoBiondo’s (R-NJ) and Mr. Larsen’s(D-WA) opening statements and as Representatives of districts with considerable interest in aviation (the FAA Tech Center in Atlantic City and the Boeing and related facilities in Seattle [1,000 GA related jobs]).

Both indicated their support for the ODA function. That introduction, subsequent questions and strong endorsements by seven of the eight witnesses (FAA [2], GAO, DoT IG, GAMA, NATA, and AIA) all made it clear that these delegations to the private sector are both safe and a critical element for the certification of aircraft. Only the President of PASS, which represents the government inspectors, initially cast aspersions on this method tested over 5 decades, but when later pressed by Rep. Larsen, President Perrone conceded that the present circumstances are safe. His point was as the future demand grows more of his union members would be needed. (Oddly The Hill‘s headline, Lawmakers question FAA airplane inspections, suggested the contrary conclusion, although the body of the article cited little to support its unwarranted thesis.)

The first panel, composed of the FAA Directors of Airworthiness and of Flight Standards, the Civil Aviation Director of GAO and the Assistant IG for Civil Aviation, directed its attention to two sections of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-95)(§§312 and 313) which were inspired by a 2010 GAO audit and a 2011 IG Audit. In response thereto, the FAA lead witness, Ms. Dorenda Baker, related that two separate ARCs had been formed to convert the GAO/IG/Congressional recommendations into actions. One group (certification streamlining) has reported its findings and detailed implementation programs and the second (consistency) should have its final documents by the end of 2013 and implementation by the end of next year. [Query: if the GAO, IG and Hill personnel assigned to write audits, reports and statutes were secunded to the FAA to do some of the underlying work, might there be more regulatory results?]

Another topic discussed during the first hour was how can/should the FAA deal with expanding demand for certification services and shrinking supply of FAA staff (as well as the underlying training and travel).The IG numbers of more than 1,000 applications for operating authorities (Parts 121, 135 and 145) on hold and 138 airworthiness projects on hold (some more than 3 years). Both Ms. Baker and John Duncan of Flight Standards immediately stated that their #1 priority must be to inspect and surveil existing operators/manufacturers. As to requests for new authority, they gave lengthy explanations of new sequencing procedures that are being or have been developed (including triage techniques which would place more difficult requests back in the queue).

Then, Ms. Baker pointed to the FAA’s future reliance both in the operations and certification on its own system safety techniques, using risk-based assessments to point resources towards the projects and/or operators who needed the most attention. Further dialogue, including cogent comments from Dr. Dillingham (GAO) and Mr. Guzetti (IG), acknowledged that the FAA staff may have cultural problems. Many of the talented staff engineers have proven their merit by retracing the calculations of each and every submission, for example, to find details which the applicant must redo.

Under the SMS like approach (Risk Based Resource Targeting),  the government employees will use data to identify which elements should be scrutinized rather than their historical 100% sampling techniques. This skill may have to be trained or the human resource redeployed to a project in which the line-by-line technique is merited, i.e. a first time applicant for which there is no history or a new technology.
Mr. Larsen picked up on some observations made by the GAO that private citizens dealing with the FAA fear, if they complain about a problem even under the agency’s consistency/standardization, that the end result will be “retaliation”. Dr. Dillingham said that their study had heard of such situation in which a “chastised” employee had made sure that the person seeking that review received difficult handling in the future. The GAO was not able to document such fears.

The Democrat from Washington State said that he could; a constituent came to his district office only under the promise that no one in the FAA would be told that he even came to the Member’s office, much less complained. The Baker/Duncan response was that they were aware of such retaliation issues, that headquarters has made it clear that such behavior is unacceptable and that it is a cultural problem which, hopefully, time, training (if that luxury is restored-not their words) and future hiring will eventually cure.

A related issue, inconsistency, was addressed in the first panel, but it was not until the very telling example raised by Pete Bunce, President of GAMA. He related a story about an FAA/industry teleconference in which the issue of RVSM was discussed. The point of the conversation was that the RVSM aircraft must meet the exact same standards when its Airworthiness Certification is issued and then when the same aircraft is placed on the operator’s Ops Specs. One of the Flight Standards inspectors, who was on the call, provided a perfect example of the problem. He explained that he felt obligated to repeat the exact same set of tests, because “how can I TRUST the work of the FAA certification inspector”. The shock wave from the other agency participants was audible through the phone lines. The inability of the FAA to achieve anything remotely like standardization on such a practical, elementary level was shown to the telecom participants and its didactic value to those in attendance at the hearing was equally valuable.

The second hour, Mr. Bunce, Tom Hendricks, NATA’s president, Ali Bahrami, AIA’s Civil Aviation VP (recently left the AIR-1 position) and Mr. Perrone of PASS provided other excellent examples of all of the good and difficult aspects of certification. They cited new, improved safety equipment decisions that are deterred because the small company cannot afford to wait through years of delay. It was suggested that ever since the start of aviation, the FAA regulations and policies have been the “gold standard” around the globe and that status is at risk. Foreign manufacturers want to build plants in the US to be close to this market and to hire good technicians, but are concerned about delays. They all stressed that the good work of the two committees cannot be captured until they are implemented and the FAA’s milestones for that transition are too vague, too process oriented and inadequate in terms of real world results metrics.

PASS asserted that their staffing, 139 certification inspectors, is barely adequate now and must be increased in the future. The specter of having to pay for certification services, like what is currently an FDA practice, was raised and the association representatives answered that they pay for DARs, DERs and ODAs; so the more generic “user fee” issue was avoided.

The Chairman reluctantly closed the hearing due to other Congressional calendar requirements, but indicated that he and other Members are likely to submit post hearing questions. While it is clear that the Light Aircraft Revitalization Act and the ARC work which stimulated this legislation will expedite the Part 23 certifications, similarly innovative attacks of Parts 21, 25 and 29 as well as use of designees in Part 121, 135 and 145 work are urgently needed.

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