Is the FAA a castle under Siege?

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This picture of a castle under attack seems to be an accurate symbol of the FAA’s current status. The below two linked critiques of the performance of the folks at 800 Independence Ave. are just a small sample of the whole host of well-intended folks who are dissatisfied with the inability of the agency to meet their expectations.

The list is long:

· Progress on NextGen

o This issue alone can easily be subdivided into multiple major attacks-



§ Slowness of implementing RNP

§ ADS-B in and out, particularly as to how to finance this equipment

· The slowness in issuing and “stupidity” of the UAS rules

· SMS rules issuance and application

o Some evidence to suggest that the workforce is resistant to this change

· Pilot experience, training and duty time rules//shortage

· Sleep apnea—Flight Surgeon’s lack of appropriate procedure

· Contract Towers

· User Fees, the constant resurrection of the concept with clear bipartisan opposition

· Streamlining certification—Part 23 is the lead, but there are requests for Part 25 and others to be rewritten. Much of this reflects the slowness of the local certification offices.

· Foreign Repair Station rules—probably the prime example for how Congress ducks an issue and dumps a superfluous issue on the FAA to satiate an influential constituency

· There’s a ton more of these fair and foul complaints.

When thinking about the issues above, an important fact is that there is no insidious, internal plot within the FAA staff to intentionally slow things down. Another fact is that the Administrator, Deputy Administrator, senior staff, managers and staff are competent and doing their best. They face complex technical issues trying to balance the highest level of safety against a statutorily required benefit/cost analysis. Some of their inability to meet deadlines is attributable to “help” like the Congressional sequestration.

Are these criticisms all completely unfair? No, some have validity, but the volume of the critiques is high and their incidence seems relentless.

Specific accident investigations by the FAA and/or the NTSB are essential to the agency’s mission. However, while the NTSB’s oversight function has helped the FAA’s focus and priorities, there is a specific office devoted to keeping track of the NTSB’s Top 10 Most Wanted list and pending recommendations. That’s a lot of paperwork; maybe if there was less of it, some of the personnel could have more productive assignments.

Multiple trips to the Hill, responding to GSA critiques, developing answers for the OIG, briefing OST and OMB and other experts detract from the productive work of the FAA staff. For example here is a recent screen shot of the recent list of matters requiring serious devotion of resources to work with the investigators, prepare responses to the report, attend the requisite Congressional hearings and then produce the follow-up reports.


Is there no fault within the building? It is endemic to an organization which regulates aviation safety that its people will be cautious. There is very little perceived benefit to take risk and abandon what has worked in the past. For safety regulators, quick adoption of something new is antithetical to their ordinary practice. The OIG report mentioned this “conservative” phenomenon with regard to NextGen and the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety suggested that such resistance to change may be why the adoption of SMS in the field is also slow.

Another aspect of the FAA’s tendency to move “with all deliberate speed” is that it is bound by laws. The Administrative Procedure Act requires the consumption of a lot of time, but along with it Congress has required all agencies, not just the FAA, like a cost/benefit analysis, small business impact analysis, paperwork review, etc. The FAA maintains a staff to keep track of all of its regulatory projects, what the expected date each should be published, why that goal may not be met, etc.

The progress from initial conceptualization of a new rule to its final issuance may involve multiple reviews internally (flight standards, policy, legal) then an interminable set of trips to the Secretary’s Office and the Office of Management and Budget. Even after the NPRM and the Final Rule have been issued, it is very possible that there will be litigation. That potential is why so much time is devoted to subjects, like the economics of B/C analysis, which are tangential to safety; getting it right early is thought to save time.

The drafting of safety rules is not that easy. First, most of these regulations are applied to complex fact situations—

· the hours spent in duty time is not just the minutes he or she spends in the cockpit;

· the maintenance of a complex machine like an airplane involves specific tools and procedures to precise standards with complex techniques at prescribed intervals;

· the demonstration of the airworthiness of an aircraft involves the definition of many, many intricate engineering standards;

· Air traffic control procedures, airport standards, requirements for repair stations, training of aviation professionals, etc. are not intuitive and require drafting a     great granularity.

The rules have to be written for enforcement purposes and to last over time. That means that there must be both adequate specificity to support a violation AND sufficiently flexible to cover future changes. That’s an incredibly difficult job of wordsmithing; it’s not intuitive and not susceptible to a quick draft. It is important to both the regulated and the regulator that the rules are not being revised frequently; both because it is hard to go through the rewrite process and because predictability of safety standards adds to the likelihood of compliance.

In the past 30 years the FAA staffing has been reduced by Congress. There may be fewer airlines, but there is not less to do.

None of this is or should be news to aviation safety cognoscenti. This short litany (there’s actually a lot more impediments involved) is not known to the average journalist, flier, Hill staffer or other self-appointed critic. That lack of knowledge does not inhibit any of these sources of FAA complaints to raise their voices in caustic commentary about whatever their singular, perhaps myopic, views of what the agency’s failures, incompetencies, tardiness or abject negligence may be. Surprisingly, some, who should know better, feel free to unload on the FAA.

The problem is that all too frequently those who know better do not take the time to defend the FAA. There are a whole host of reasons why each of us may not take up the cudgel—not enough time, not have a dog in the fight, the critic’s clout, too complicated. The end result of the collective silence is that the FAA’s self-image cannot be that great. It must be tough to hit your desks, pick up the press clippings (bummer) and then enthusiastically attack your work.

It might be helpful for aviation professions, not all of who are 1000% happy with what the FAA is doing to her/his certificate, to take the time to call, for example, a reporter and share your insights into why the FAA does what it does. Things will not get better if unfounded attacks are allowed to continue unabated. The guys in the above castle became fatalistic after a while of siege. The guys on the ramparts of the Orville and Wilbur Wright buildings could use our support.

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