Most Recent FAA Enforcement Case against Southwest provides a GREAT opportunity to apply new Order 8300.373

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As noted below, the nation’s aviation safety agency has expressed again, its displeasure with Southwest’s compliance with the Federal Aviation Regulations. It was the 5th such complaint against Southwest or its contractors in the past five years.

The same FAA office has issued, between 2010 and 2015, press releases asserting that the Southwest Airlines should pay in excess of $13,000,000 for alleged violations of the regulations (all maintenance). The facts date back to 2006. Most involve a variety of record keeping problems.

Clearly there is a dysfunctional relationship between the regulator and the regulated. What should be done to cure Southwest’s bad habits and/or to improve the soured communications between these two critical links in the aviation safety process? What is the appropriate solution to this bullheaded situation?

On the one hand, a veteran Aviation Safety Inspector once said, “Give me enough time to review the records of the Vatican and I can find a violation. Yeah, I know that the Pope’s infallible, but somewhere someone failed to comply with the FARs, ADs, AC, Handbooks or their own documents.” On the other hand, a seasoned airline safety executive once commented, “Never, in all my years with a number of airlines, did I ever hear someone say, much less insinuate, “Let’s violate this FAR because by cheating, we can save money.” These two opinions, which appear on the surface to be contradictory, can be integrated in the following consistent TRUTH:

The FARs are complicated and susceptible to various, reasonable interpretations. The regulated always aspires to fulfill its compliance duty. When it fails, the FAA is provided with a teachable moment.

The good news for the traveling public is that both sides take their safety duties very seriously and that neither intentionally ignores the FARs.

That truism, perhaps not both the Ying and the Yang, is incorporated in a recent FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION COMPLIANCE POLICY articulation by the FAA Administrator. It is a significant re-statement of the FAA enforcement policy. Rather than seeking formal legal civil penalties as the #1 goal, the Head of the FAA has placed a priority on “root cause analysis and training, education or other appropriate improvements to procedures and training.”

A superficial review of the allegations seems to point to Southwest’s need to improve record-keeping and/or training. Amassing civil penalties subtracts available cash to fix these problems to the FAA’s satisfaction. More importantly, such remediation is infinitely more likely to result in a higher level of safety. That’s what the new enforcement policy seeks.sw77

The brilliance of the directive known as Order 8300.373 is that to fashion an “appropriate procedure” the parties will be forced to discuss the specifics of the “root cause.” Does the FAA think that the MX staff does not have the appropriate knowledge of the FARs and manuals to make the RIGHT decisions? Does Southwest think that spending a significant amount of cash to add to the quality of its automated MX records? Maybe the FAA doesn’t think that the computer support system is the problem. In these compliance conversations, both might agree that SMS is not fully identifying the root problems. These dialogues, rather than throwing stones at 10 paces over the right dollar sanction, might be infinitely more fruitful in developing a proactive, remedial response to the past “sins.”

This repeated history of FAA “gotchas” and the issuance of Notices of Proposed Civil Penalties reflects the old, discarded enforcement approach. It is also not entirely surprising that the relevant office continues to ignore national policies. Having “won” a battle with local and national management on how to deal with similar enforcement issues, the aviation safety inspectors are not likely to change their old practices.

Mr. Administrator and Ms. Associate Administrator of Flight Safety, it is time to make it clear to all of the field offices that Order 8000.373 applies to each and every one of you, whether you like the new order or not.


FAA PRESS RELEASE – FAA Proposes $325,000 Civil Penalty Against Southwest Airlines

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