FAA applies SMS Resolution to CLEhow, what & why?

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SMS Resolution to CLE

As previously noted, the FAA proposed to impose a record civil penalty ($735,000) against the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE) for a season of deficient snow removal.

SMS Resolution to CLE

The FAA has announced that the City of Cleveland, the sponsor of the airport, agreed to certain conditions (expenditures of $535,000) and by that obligation, the FAA has reduced the civil penalty to $200,000. The Press Release raises more questions than it answers:

  • how did the FAA apply its compliance policy to airports BEFORE SMS is in place;
  • how the FAA will track CLE’s actual compliance without the real time scrutiny of SMS;
  • when will SMS be applied to all airports?

The FAA’s original allegations included:

  • “…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…”

SMS Resolution to CLE

Based on the facts, the FAA calculated that a civil penalty of $735,000. Under the FAA’s historic ENFORCEMENT policy, technically still applicable to airports, CLE would pay that sum of money, no chances for compromise.

Instead, the Press Release lists what CLE must do to avoid the full penalties:

  • “Maintenance of appropriate staffing numbers, with reports to the FAA twice each year, through 2020.
  • Documentation of the staffing allocated per shift for each winter event.
  • Procurement of new and replacement snow removal equipment by 2019. The FAA will review this plan every 12 months.
  • Construction of a snow removal equipment storage building on or before December 31, 2017.
  • Specific requirements for executive management oversight in the airport’s Airport Certification Manual (Snow and Ice Control Plan). Updates for these procedures must be made no later than October 1, 2016.”

Further the FAA gave CLE credit for already implementing these steps:

  • “Full staffing as of December 23, 2015, including an increase in the number of field maintenance foreman positions, additional equipment drivers, and improved management oversight.
  • Updated staffing requirements, including minimum staffing levels related to forecast weather conditions.
  • A coordinated Snow Desk that is operational during significant snow events.”

SMS Resolution to CLE

Those are terms which one might expect to see in an FAA Compliance Resolution. Further, Administrator Huerta made the following comments which are articulated in the vocabulary of his new philosophy, not in the prescriptive terms of the past:

Compliance requires all certificate holders to develop and implement internal controls that ensure they’re operating according to the highest standards…The City of Cleveland has made the changes needed to meet the FAA’s regulatory requirements. We look forward to working with the City as it continues to enhance its compliance systems.”

[emphasis added]

Compliance has replaced Enforcement as the FAA’s label for its Regulatory philosophy, but the premise for the non-punitive and collaborative method is that the regulated entity is sharing information, increasing participation in decision-making, relying on preventative statistics for alerts, designing proactive solutions and implementing them without a mandating regulation. Airports are not covered by SMS.

SMS provides the FAA with an on-going window into the certificate holder’s safety culture, commitment to implementing solutions (both timeliness and well-designed) and other aspects of its continuous compliance. That ability of the FAA to have current access to insight makes civil penalties less necessary. If one follows the FAA’s logic, in the absence of SMS, compliance solutions do not seem appropriate.

Thus, the answer to first question, why/how the FAA designed a Compliance resolution to a case without SMS in place, is not explained by the Press Release, a serious policy omission.

The window into the SMS process provides the FAA with the ability to know that it has properly staffed safety personnel. Reporting every six months really does not. CLE has not established SMS; so the FAA’s knowledge of its compliance with the requirement of adequate staff for snow removal will not be as contemporaneous as with SMS. This delay in reporting does not reflect the temporal horizon needed to assure compliance.

The second question, the FAA’s ability to track CLE’s meeting of the deadlines is not as strong as with SMS.

The underlying problem is that the safety benefits of SMS would have been available to the FAA if CLE had that state-of-the-art methodology in place.


Press Release: City of Cleveland Agrees to Pay $200,000 and Enhance Compliance Systems

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