Will the FAA Safety Review Program improve or delay Aircraft Certification?

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In the recent past the FAA has made great strides in aviation safety and much of that improvement is attributable to its implementation of Safety Management Systems and the data-driven methodologies associated with this technique. Most of this work has been focused externally relying on VDRP, self-reporting, ASIAS and other programs by the carriers to identify future fixes. Secretary Foxx announced the institution of a Safety Reporting Program (SRP) applied to the FAA Aircraft Certification line of business.

The textbook definition of safety systems is found in one of the FAA’s resources where it states:

“The System Safety discipline is defined as the application of special technical and managerial skills to the systematic, forward-looking identification and control of hazards throughout the life cycle of a project, program, or activity. The primary objective of System Safety is accident prevention. Proactively identifying, assessing, and eliminating or controlling safety-related hazards, to acceptable levels, can achieve accident prevention.”

Simply put the goal of these processes is to capture moments which may constitute an error, learn from that event and prevent its reoccurrence.

The FAA’s Air Traffic Organization published, a while ago, a major statement of its SMS program on a much broader basis. Its purpose was to identify those proactive/preventative procedures/practices which would avoid past problems. According to a report of the DoT Office of Inspector General, the FAA’s use of this tool to improve safety was deficient. Specifically the OIG concluded that ATO failed to implement any procedures or practices to assure “the effectiveness of decisions made by the program’s review committees to ensure that report acceptance criteria are rigorously followed and that conduct issues are dealt with appropriately.” From the perspective of this review, the ATSAP and VDRP application was not to improve safety by to provide “amnesty.”

There is no doubt that the work done by the professionals within the Aircraft Certification offices (AIR) provide incredibly valuable safety judgments as they apply airworthiness standards to requests for Type Certificates (above), Production Certificates, STCs, PMAs and the like. As noted by Secretary Foxx, the point of this SRP is:

“‘It is critical that our DOT employees have the opportunity to work in an environment where they are comfortable coming forward with safety concerns,’ said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. ‘This new safety review process will further advance our culture of safety and help ensure that the flying public has the best, safest experience possible.'”

A NATCA officer added:

“NATCA Regional Vice president Mike MacDonald.  ‘Voluntary reporting systems are a proven vehicle to improve the safety culture, and the AIR Safety Reporting Program will further reduce the safety concerns of both the FAA and NATCA.”

Neither in either of those quotes nor in the remainder of the Press Release is there any statement of how the SRP process will improve future certification procedures or policies. The orientation appears to solely protect whistleblowers.

The practical impact of this policy initiative is to create further impediments on the FAA managers’ ability to implement and follow policy. The AIR work product depends on uniform application of carefully articulated standards (14 CFR Parts 21, 23, 25, etc.) and the massive set of policy statements established by senior management. The managers in the critical positions are trained and qualified to exercise the expertise needed to assure that all applications are treated the same, safely.

If anyone in the AIR service decides that his or her boss is wrong, the employee can file an SRP complaint and seek review of the interpretation established by the manager. Typically, that manager qualified for the supervisory position after years of work in certification and by having demonstrated a high level of technical competence. As highlighted in the Press Release, filing of an SRP request carries with it immunity for the employee filing a request. That may create an incentive for an underperforming employee to file one or more SRPs with the goal of trying to prevent termination/demotion for cause. These review boards will deter managers from disagreeing with her/his staff.

There has been little criticism by the NTSB, the GAO or the OIG about AIR’s standards and interpretation of the rules. There have been considerable complaints about the Certification’s slowness in reviewing the many applications before it. Congress has held hearing on the tardiness of AIR and there is an initiative to rewrite Part 23 to create a process which focuses on the appropriate areas of risk. There is no doubt that the field certification offices will be uncomfortable with this new small aircraft certification regime. Filing SRPs may well delay the actual internal use of this much awaited improvement.

Will SRP advance safety or protect employees? Past FAA voluntary reporting programs have provided reasons to be worried.

ARTICLE: FAA Implements Safety Reporting Program for Aircraft Certification Service

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