Trust needs to be Restored by the Administrator to Preserve VDRP and ASAP

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AIN Blog: Torqued: Can You Trust the FAA?

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John Goglia is a former Member of the National Transportation Safety Board and was a leader of the IAM. He was appointed to the Board because of his knowledge of mechanics, his understanding of the employer-worker relationships and his Democratic Party affiliation (the NTSB statute requires affiliation for each seat). The point of all of this background is that he has the credentials and knowledge that mandates that the FAA Administrator listen!

The essence of his AIN Blog: Torqued piece is that the VDRP, ASAP and other voluntary disclosure programs are NOT TO BE TRUSTED. These programs are part of a number of data programs which have transformed the FAA’s and industry’s safety agenda from a reactive to a proactive list. The current exemplary safety numbers are attributable to our being able to identify problems and respond to them before they are cited as proximate causes. How can an esteemed expert, like Member Goglia, be heard to state that certificate holders should not utilize these self-disclosure programs? Why does he urge his brothers to “lawyer up?”

He has concluded that the FAA has violated the trust which underlies those programs. His knowledge of what is going on in the field is that the information given to the FAA is used to bring enforcement cases against the individuals making the submission. The rules of these programs make it clear that the data may not be used for enforcement unless several narrow exceptions are involved. The Member’s feedback from people, who have made such submissions, is that all too frequently the FAA cites reasons why they may use the disclosure to seek enforcement.

That is a trend which has been mentioned here before. Member Goglia’s suggested response to the FAA’s tendency to whip out the traffic cop ticket book is to hire counsel.

That response, while wise advice to the individuals involved, does little to restore the value of these voluntary disclosure programs.

First, it is important to ascertain where this “breech” in the VDRP program has occurred. It is clear that FAA senior management has articulated (and according to a recent Aviation Week article, re-articulated) that the field should protect the integrity of these programs. When people contribute such information, inspectors and counsel should not always initiate enforcement action. Even though the policy has been established, the field seems to continue to ignore the concept that the rules of VDRP and ASAP should be followed.

Senior and local management are unable to institute policies which the field follows. The source of this problem can be traced to the 2008 Transportation and Infrastructure Hearings on FAA whistleblowers. The pronouncements of those Congressional Committee members empowered FAA staff at the lowest levels. The facts of the two cases that were the subject of the hearing were unfortunate and representative of a single FAA office. The Congressional reaction, as widely received/understood by the FAA field personnel, was that an inspector need not listen to his or her boss when the staffer believes that the manager does not understand the problem found. The Congressional hearings were widely publicized and the Members’ outrage in response to these bad situations was seen as license to strictly enforce the safety rules.

Conversations with people familiar with many FSDOs or ACDOs say that the lowest level of FAA flight standards personnel frequently ignore the advice, requests and directives of their supervisors and managers on matters of interpretation of the FARs and handbooks. The ignoring of the VDRP protections of disclosers is frequently cited because the 2008 hearings involved such a disclosure. Since 2008, it is evident that FAA safety management has little influence over the implementation of FAA safety policy at the lowest levels. Off the record, executives, managers and supervisors have vented their frustration about this phenomenon.

Though the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety and/or the Director of Flight Standards may state that the policy is to do X, the line staff person believes that she or he can and may do Y. How is that possible? The field personnel are protected by someone who reports directly to the Administrator—the Office of Audit and Evaluation. The creation and existence of an office that holds the potential for a high level review, particularly with the history of the 2008 hearings, have tipped the balance towards the lowest level of employee.

Hopefully, the Administrator agrees with Member Goglia and every major stakeholder (airlines, pilots, maintenance personnel, repair stations, associations) that voluntary disclosure programs are among the most important programs for proactive safety advances. If that assumption is correct, then Mr. Huerta should make a public statement reinforcing that the protections of VDRP and ASAP should be carefully adhered to. It would be appropriate for the Administrator to make it clear that he has 100% confidence in the Aviation Safety organization from its senior executives to the managers/supervisors in the field. This should begin to restore the ability of the FAA to implement initiatives.

It would also be helpful if the Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure and the Ranking Member would affirm their support of VDRP and ASAP. They can do so with the endorsements of all of the aviation trade associations and the unions.

Without such remedial actions, Member Goglia is right. Lawyers will prosper and safety will be marginalized. The repair requires visible action by the Administrator and IDEALLY would be greatly aided by a signal from the Hill commensurate to the 2008 hearings

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