Hopefully the Watchdog/OIG will see the value of SMS/Compliance Policy

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DOT Watchdog Examines FAA Oversight of Southwest Airlines

Auditors look into allegations of cozy ties between carrier and some government managers


Andy Pasztor

June 20, 2018 9:30 p.m. ET

Transportation Dept. watchdog to audit FAA oversight of airline maintenance





SMS/Compliance Policy being audited by OIG

New Regime poses Great Potential

Final Audit ought not try to cancel Program

Two different writers, one the highly regarded aviation writer for the WSJ, reporting about two different cases, called the auditor “Watchdog”. These actions of the US Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, were initiated by (1) a hotline complaint (the OIG literally receives a myriad of these a day) plus letters from House and Senate Minority Members and (2)a request by the Ranking Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Subcommittee on Aviation. While the incidents which were the catalysts for these reviews, a careful reading of the OIG memoranda suggest that the “watchdog” is really assessing the FAA’s Safety Management System and the new Compliance Philosophy.

[NOTE: a similar review is being conducted in Canada.]

[NOTE: 100% of the 26 audits OIG reviews between January 2016 and today, found problems with the FAA.]

THOUGHTS which the OIG might consider:

First, no one has claimed that the SMS/ Compliance policy would eradicate errors. The literature on this approach makes it clear that the goal is to reduce risk. All committed to safety culture seek on a daily basis ZERO errors, but all acknowledge that humans and machines are not perfect.

Second, the auditors should also note that the origins of the alleged problems at Allegiant Air, American and Southwest may predate their implementation of SMS. It is also possible, maybe even likely, that these carriers have not fully inculcated the culture which is needed to make SMS truly functional. There may be no causal relationship between SMS/Compliance and the problems at issue.

Third, while a review may find that the SMS preventative data function may have missed the relevant precursors to the fault. It may be tempting to categorically condemn this innovative, but highly regarded regulatory regimen. Here are a few reasons why the OIG might best be surgical rather than use ax blade in its critique:


  • Glacier-like process of the issuance of regulations – the cumulative impact of the basic requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act plus multiple collateral statutes (like a Small Business Impact Statement) require significant time to draft and review a proposal. Then reviews, both within the FAA (policy, economics, legal) and above it (DOT, OMB), cause additional  major delays. The gestation period from initial conceptualization to final implementation can consume as much as five to ten years. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the FAA to keep up with industry changes, the identification of new technical problems and new technology.
  • For twenty or more years, the budget and staffing of the FAA have been reduced. Whether it is true or not, the internal perception is that the FAA’s capacity to regulate, following the modus operandi of the past, is less than its existing safety agenda. The assignment of inspectors, for example, to the P&W powerplants of one airline is no longer possible. Congress has sent the message that the FAA must do more with less.

  • Consistency – the pattern of independent, inconsistent application of policy in the field was found by the OIG, GAO, industry and even an FAA ARC. That equates to different interpretations being applied to an airline depending on what ASI explained her/his view of the FARs as well as among airlines, on a macro level. This lack of consistency has subjected the Flight Standards organization to substantial criticism, to which senior management agreed.
  • The press and the NTSB frequently criticized the FAA that it reacted to accidents; that their revisions to rules made it a tombstone organization. Upon reflection, FAA senior management decided that it needed to be more proactive in its approach. An initiative began to find techniques in which the regulator could “get out in front” of safety risks.
  • ICAO and SMS—this UN organization decided that all civil aviation authorities should implement this state-of-the-art safety approach. Its basis is the analysis of meta data bases from shared airline information , extrapolating significant trends, assessing solutions, cooperative/consensus processes and quick implementation of preventative solutions. The cooperation element of SMS, which includes unions, the FAA and management, requires an open, trusting environment.
  • The experience with SMS caused the FAA to realize that a punitive/enforcement tactic and a cooperative compliance approach were antithetical; so, the Administrator issued a new Compliance Policy.





 Now instead of waiting until major changes to the FARs must be subjected to the languorous NPRM process, the SMS teams can design and implement IMMEDIATE solutions.

→ Finding fault will be replaced with defining consensus.

 Proactive will reduce the need to be reactive.

FAA subject matter experts will be comfortable engaging in dialogue with the certificate holders about the intent of the FAR and then enter into a discussion of the best way to reduce risks. Confrontation and the ticket writing mentality will abate.

 The need to promulgate an endless list of new requirements will be obviated by the fact that the problem has been solved already.

→ “One size fits all” will be supplanted by the correction which will address your airline’s particular problems.

This new approach is still in transition both within the FAA and industry. The SMS/Compliance Policy poses significant improvements in all segments of aviation. Declaring it a failure before it is fully implemented would cause aviation to revert to its old “police force, find fault and collect civil penalty” technique. A review of that past tactic demonstrates that its retroactive perspective does not prevent problems.

As Mr. Pasztor has previously noted,

“Government oversight of aviation safety is changing dramatically in many parts of the globe, with carriers and enforcement authorities working together more closely than ever to reduce risks.

From the U.S. to Europe to parts of Latin America, airline officials and regulators increasingly are focused on sharing information and taking joint action to prevent accidents and serious incidents before they occur—rather than imposing rules based on lessons learned from crashes.

At the heart of the system: voluntary moves by carriers intent on going beyond mere compliance with basic regulations. Airlines are sharing their own sophisticated data analyses, which typically pinpoint budding safety hazards before regulators by themselves could identify the risks.”

Wall Street Journal July 8, 2016

Hopefully, the OIG will be able to see the positive attributes and not determine that this preventative, data-driven, collaborative/cooperative safety mechanism is a failure. Equally importantly, it would be propitious for other safety advocates to express their professional views on the SMS/Compliance Policy.


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1 Comment on "Hopefully the Watchdog/OIG will see the value of SMS/Compliance Policy"

  1. Armando Martinez | June 25, 2018 at 3:00 pm | Reply

    Mr. Murdock,

    Great article, I feel you were right on and obviously very knowledgeable on the subject.

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