Historic Elko Airport case may serve as a teachable moment for the future FAA Enforcement Policy

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An FAA Airport Inspector ordered the immediate closure of Elko Regional Airport’s Runway 5-23, which was recently reopened. While the record on this issue is hardly complete (the FAA has released a cursory statement), the abrupt action to shut down this historic airport seems to be in conflict with the FAA’s future approach to compliance with its regulations.

The Elko Airport was the terminus point for the 1st commercial airmail flight by Varney Airlines (now after multiple mergers, United Airlines) from Pasco, Washington over Airmail Route #5 with an intermediate stop at Boise, Idaho and onto Elko, a 487 mile route on April 6,1926. The Laird Swallow was piloted by Leon D. Cuddeback. As a matter of history, the Elko facility predates the FAA.

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On September 28, 2015, in the normal course of its maintenance program (the original construction was 1987), the repaving of Runway 5-23, all 5,500 feet of pavement was reopened. Other improvements are a runway LED signage and lighting system and a Precision Approach Path Indicator on both ends of the main runway. The $9.6 million renovation cost to date was 93.75% paid for by an FAA grant. Thus, the safety agency knew about and was involved in this process.

Now to the FAA’s basis for closure, its statement and the City’s response (all based on press reports):

  • The FAA notified the Elko Regional Airport on November 5 that it had to close the runway immediately.
  • That decision effectively terminated commercial flights until corrections were completed.
  • It’s order to close one of their runways due to missing markings.
  • FAA Pacific division public affairs manager Ian Gregor said it’s a safety issue, and that regulations require airports to mark reconstructed runways.
  • According to the City, the markings were obscured by a fog seal applied to the runway during reconstruction.
  • The airport said the fog seal was approved and largely funded by the FAA.
  • Again, according to the sponsor, the FAA had ordered the airport to issue a NOTAM to warn pilots about irregular markings as a safety transition while the markings were reinstated.
  • The airport manager said at no time during the three-day review did the inspector bring up the issue. Gregor said the “inspector immediately informed the airport of his findings.”

The existing guidance for Inspectors when surveilling airports (FAA Order 5280.5c), provides the following guidance:

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Depending on which of the two versions (FAA or City) of the debriefing is credible, either the necessary communication about “any areas that will require some form of follow-up action” was not said or not heard. Under either scenario, that it was not clear that the markings must be IMMEDIATELY CORRECTED was a huge failure of the post inspection debriefing process.

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On June 26, 2015, the Administrator took the unusual step of issuing Order 8000.373 to all employees directing them to follow the new kinder, gentler compliance approach. That pronouncement was summarized here. ¶4.e gives the following directive to ALL FAA inspectors:

The FAA recognizes that some deviations arise from factors such as flawed procedures, simple mistakes, lack of understanding, or diminished skills. The Agency believes that deviations of this nature can most effectively be corrected through root cause analysis and training, education or other appropriate improvements to procedures or training programs for regulated entities, which are documented and verified to ensure effectiveness. However, reluctance or failure in adopting these methods to remediate deviations or instances of repeated deviations might result in enforcement.

The Flight Standards organization has issued Order 8900.323. The Airports organization has not yet issued its comparable guidance; so only by analogy, an inspector might have considered the following language:

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If the Inspector believed that Elko was intentionally violating the FARs, the Order to close the runway was appropriate and probably not enough. If the sponsor was incapable of or unwilling to comply with safety standards, severe response would be justified (amending the Part 139 certificate to delete the Airport manager as the designated official?).

However, based on the selected limited FAA action, the inspector hypothetically, might have considered the following the specific dictates of FAA Order 8000.373 and general guidance of Order 8900.323 might have resulted in a different outcome. Application of these principles might have led the inspector to (a) use a strongly worded and clear NOTAM to warn the pilots of the problems with the markings, (b) establish in writing a precise remedial action (completion of markings by__/__/2015 and (c) review of past communications between the FAA and the Part 139 certificate holder to determine how the failure of speaking/hearing about the runway markings occurred.

There is no doubt that the FAA field may resist the new world order as a change from their past practices. Cases like this one provide a teachable moment for Airports and all of the FAA staff involved in enforcing the FARs. The allegations/facts create real world example of how to apply the new compliance policy. The transition will take time, but the safety which can be attained through the accompanying SMS discipline is worth the time.

 

ARTICLE: City manager responds to FAA

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