United Airlines FAA Fine
Transparency About FAA’s Use of Enforcement or Compliance
FAA Press Release
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposes a $435,000 civil penalty against United Airlines for allegedly operating an aircraft that was not in an airworthy condition.
The FAA alleges that on June 9, 2014, United mechanics replaced a fuel pump pressure switch on a Boeing 787 in response to a problem that a flight crew had documented two days before. However, the airline failed to perform a required inspection of the work before returning the aircraft to service, the agency alleges.
United operated the aircraft on 23 domestic and international passenger flights before performing the required inspection on June 28, 2014, the FAA alleges. Two of those flights allegedly occurred after the FAA had notified United that it had not performed the inspection.
The FAA alleges the aircraft was not airworthy during all 23 of the flights.
“Maintaining the highest levels of safety depends on operators closely following all applicable rules and regulations,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Failing to do so can create unsafe conditions.”
United has asked to meet with the FAA to discuss the case.
United, issued a short reply:
“We immediately took action after identifying the issue and are working closely with the FAA in their review,” spokesperson Charles Hobart said.
Background to this Anomaly
The language of the Press Release from the FAA is standard pre 2012 Punitive Enforcement Policy language. The philosophy for many years was that by issuing civil sanctions the carrier will be deterred from repeating the violation alleged.
In July of 2015, the Administrator issued a new Order on Enforcement, the FAA’s approach to seeking safety. The Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety took the next step in articulating the new approach and amended her staff’s Handbook to make it clear that cooperation and the joint search for root causes is the new modus operandi. To make sure that the FAA field, Administrator Huerta gave a speech underlying the Evolution in Safety. There have been several subsequent FAA enforcement actions which have sent mixed messages (old v. new?).
The compliance/cooperation approach is an extension of the IATA initiated SMS methodology for regulating airlines and is compelled by the diminishing human resources of the Flight Standards staff. A noted aviation journalist was perceptive enough to describe this major change in FAA safety policy.
United Facts & New FAA Policy
As outlined by the FAA, this is a case of process and paperwork—not flying an unsafe aircraft. Assuming that the Press Release’s allegations are all correct, there is no statement that United failed to perform the required replacement. Its case is whether the maintenance technicians properly inspected their work. That is a violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations.
It is also precisely the sort of human error for which SMS was created. Safety Management regimen calls for the airline, working with the FAA, to determine WHY the inspection was not completed, not to punish the employee or the certificate holder for this failure.
The diagnosis might include causes like bad internal processes/paperwork for this sort of repair (the SMS focus is not limited to fuel pump pressure switch, but all similar procedures), the AMT crew was short, the period of time allotted to this work is too short, poor supervision, inadequate training of a better computerized system which would not allow release of the aircraft without recording of the inspection. The 3600 review is more likely to create better techniques to assure that the inspection is done. For the average AMT or shop supervisor or maintenance manager, a $430,000 civil penalty is not top of mind at the next fuel pump replacement or similar tasks. The SMS output would likely result in a better way of doing business.
What does this Civil Penalty mean?
The certificate holders and even more importantly the FAA field personnel fully understood the old penalty regime. There even was a multi-box matrix which formalized the penalty assessment. The compliance/cooperation philosophy involves a greater degree of judgment or discretion. The ideal scenario is for the problem to be incorporated in a safety review analysis. SRA is a forum intended to find root causes and the FAA representative fully participates in the analysis of the problem as well as defining a solution.
The FAA press release does not mention the SMS process; there is no indication of whether it was involved, failed or was flawed. In the absence of any indication of the applicability of the FAA’s future primary regulatory instrument and of the reason why/why not the new Compliance Policy was utilized, the existing confusion about and/or resistance to the system implemented by the Administrator plus Aviation Safety leadership will be exacerbated.
Transparency about actions, which appear to deviate from Order 8000.373 and Notice 8900.323 will be critical to the implementation of this important program which holds such potential for safety. Without more clarity, the progression to a truly cooperative effort to comply, a legacy of Peggy Gilligan, will be slowed or worse.