Boeing Allegations Suggest the Value of a Regulatory Affairs Organization

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ARTICLE: FAA Proposes $2.75 Million Civil Penalty Against Boeing Co. for Quality Control Violations

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The civil penalty process has just begun and Boeing has not begun to explain its side of this story. It has a large and sophisticated organization dedicated to meeting its regulatory obligations. Based on those observations, one has to surmise that there are good reasons why Boeing did not meet the expectations of the FAA in responding to these manufacturing concerns.

Regulatory Affairs is a critically important function for an OEM, air carrier, repair station, airman or any holder of a certificate. The privilege of holding the authority to perform safety functions is a fragile possession. The law definitely favors the FAA in matters in which the regulator believes that the regulated is not meeting the demanding requirements of the regulations.

Perhaps equally compelling is the impact of a public allegation that the certificate holder is not fully complying. Usually the notice of a civil penalty focuses on the paperwork trail which the FAA inspectors follow so assiduously. Whatever the particulars of the FAA’s complaint, passengers tend to regard the press release as a statement of fact; once placed on the record, economic harm to the certificate holder can be measured.

Airlines spend a substantial portion of their budgets preventively protecting the largest capital asset – their maintenance schedules are designed to fix things before they create problems. It is easy to justify the expenses which assure the future flow of revenues.

Those in the industry complain when they are told that the FAA wants THIS document now. The company resources needed to do the research, gather the documents, define and write the rationale and deliver the message to some inspector detracts from the operations of the airline frequently and are scarce in numbers and the needed expertise.

Many times the FAA asks a question about a regulation which seems to say X, for example, to the line maintenance team, but the FAA’s request states the rule means Y. No one on the shop floor knows how to research the history of the rule and probably does not have the time to walk away from time sensitive work to try to find the answer.

The requirement to complete engineering analysis, to complete a training course or to get the work out the door seems to take precedence over getting back to the FAA. That prioritization seems even clearer when the message back to the regulators is “sorry, we cannot meet the response date.”

The other side of this governmental dialogue is a dedicated public servant. He or she believes that what he/she has discovered is a serious safety violation and if it is not immediately rectified, an airplane will fall from the sky. That sense of urgency exists even when the underlying issue is paperwork. The belief that “pencil whipping” by certificate management was a tactic to hide real safety violations was confirmed by legendary cases like Eastern Airlines.

A typical ASI has learned the FARs at some training program and he/she has created a personal experience base which adds to regulatory interpretation. It would be unusual for these busy inspectors to spend time finding the regulatory precedents or reading the preamble to the NPRMs. Their inspiration has been reinforced by Congressional hearings in which inspectors were found to have been ignored by management.

What the Boeing allegations, with no definitive proof as of this date, suggest is that spending money and time on Regulatory Affairs should be treated with the same corporate reverence as preventative maintenance. There should be a well-respected team within the certificate holder organization and the sole focus of those safety professionals should be the preservation of the certificate. If the FAA suspends or revokes your ticket, all of those other assets become worthless. You cannot fly an airplane without all of the requisite FAA authorities.

Designing and/or training a Regulatory Affairs organization to address this critical protection of your FAA certificate might justify learning from experts who have seen poor carrier-inspector relations, have helped fix those regulatory affair divorces and who have done the work needed to respond to specific problems.

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