OIG gets it right regulator-regulated boundaries need to be set

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FAA Has Not Fully Addressed Safety Concerns Regarding the American Airlines Flight Test Program

Finds problems FAA Inspector relation with AA flight test staff

The Office had history of issues

SMS’s cooperation/collaboration need clear boundaries


The Office of Inspector General, DOT, has had a history of making judgments on highly technical matters in  reports criticizing the FAA. Project ID: AV2018060, finding that the FAA failed in its supervision of American Airlines’ flight-testing, specifically passed on the details of the American Pilots Association’s complaint[1] and focused on the behavior of  the only inspector overseeing the flight test program.










Among the 16 pages of the Report, the OIG discovered this:

“When we interviewed the inspector about the flight test program, he displayed little knowledge of it beyond describing how great it was. Instead, he stated that a few pilots had been causing problems for 15 years and advised us to “talk to the experts.” Then, without our knowledge, he set up a meeting with us and airline officials—whom he called the “kings of the airline.” Furthermore, during an interview about potential inspector impartiality, an FAA flight operations frontline manager referred to the AA flight test manager as “perfect” and someone who “could do no wrong,” and to the airline as “golden.” These comments raise concerns about the lack of objectivity at this FAA office.”

“the inspector in this case had developed a personal relationship with the head of the AA flight test program, which created the appearance of diminished impartiality. For example, he made plans, using his Government-issued computer and email account, to travel abroad with the head of the program and introduce him to the inspector’s family. The potential impact of the inspector’s apparent lack of impartiality was compounded by the large scope of air carrier programs for which he was responsible.”

That’s bad on several levels.

Personal relationships in the context of professional situations are not unusual. Having a level of understanding of another’s personality, interests and families can improve communications (“he’s not responding because…”). The appropriate boundaries in a commercial context are usually gray. That line becomes more defined when the individuals, like a company buyer and a salesperson, develop a friendship outside of work. Both bosses may worry about the agreed to prices, terms, etc.; is the deal as good for the respective companies?

Equally, if not more so, the relationship between the regulator and the regulated must be held to a higher level of care. Both parties must be aware that the appearance of partiality is every bit as damaging as an actual loss of objectivity.  The scope of this individual’s responsibilities merited a strict distancing:

“he was involved in hotline complaints, multiple AA voluntary safety programs, and oversight of the carrier’s safety management system, which is used to identify and mitigate safety risks across the airline. However, as the only inspector overseeing the flight test program, he became a single point of failure for FAA.”

And, there were two easy remedies – request for transfer of duties or on a preventative basis- the manager rotating the inspector well before his 28th year in the job. Supervisors will regard both such personnel actions as positive. The failure to do so here probably was the precipitant for an early retirement.

Flight-testing is an important function within AA’s own safety management system.  It is one part of American’s huge Maintenance Facility[2]. Though the flying associated with returning a plane to service is not a Part 121 flight, there is a InFO, titled Non-Routine Flight Operations (NRFO), which was issued in response to an NTSB recommendation issued after a fatal crash[3]. In an era of SMS, discussions of how the NRFO should be implemented appear to be a proper exercise of the FAA emphasis on collaboration/cooperation.

With that background, this incident is MOST DISAPPOINTING.

  • The FAA FSDO in North Texas was the subject of the illustrious, for some “infamous, 2008 House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure Oversight and Investigations Hearing held hearing entitled “Critical Lapses in FAA Safety Oversight of Airlines: Abuses of Regulatory ‘Partnership Programs.”
  • SMS/Compliance Philosophy uses words like “collaboration” and “cooperation”, nouns which may arouse suspicions of “too friendly”. FAA Headquarters has developed and is implementing training to help the field personnel adjust to the new culture. The fine line between the desired behavior and inappropriate relations must be an important segment of those courses.




  • Perhaps the individual at issue in this OIG report had not yet received this training?


SMS/Compliance Philosophy is an important strategy for the future of aviation safety and the FAA. Another incident like this unfortunate one could do considerable harm to this effort. The FAA has promised to comply with, and the OIG is waiting for answers to, these concerns:…

  1. Modify the existing tool used to evaluate the objectivity of inspectors to incorporate risk factors such as non-routine operations and the length of time inspectors oversee the same air carrier.
  2. Develop and implement controls requiring oversight office staff to resolve complaints and follow key policy requirements such as directly contacting complainants and documenting investigations.
  3. Establish and implement criteria for evaluating correspondence to ensure safety complaints are routed to FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation.

Completion of those tasks must be very high on the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety’s “To Do” list.


[1] Footnote 5 at page 7 ”APA’s specific complaints/concerns were extremely technical in nature; as such, we have summarized them here” multiple safety issues pertaining to the flight test program, including AA’s use of unqualified pilots and a culture of suppressing safety complaints.


[2] The FAA Certificate Management Office in Irving TX has 100 positions as shown by the cover graphic which displays the phone list of all of the employees on either side of the FAA certificate.

[3] On December 22, 1996, three crewmembers and three technicians were killed when an Airborne Express DC-8 crashed during such a flight, which aimed to verify that recent maintenance and modifications had not changed how the aircraft operated. Following its investigation of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board made a series of recommendations to FAA, including to establish guidance for air carriers performing non-routine operations, such as evaluation flights, and conduct appropriate surveillance of these programs.


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