Management of FAA Inspection Programs cannot be Solely Measured by Hard, Objective Numbers

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ARTICLE: IG Finds FAA Flight Safety Inspector Model Faulty

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The process of applying the FARs and related guidance and standards to air carriers, airmen (a statutory term), AMTs, repair stations and a whole host of other regulated entities involves very few binominal decisions. In fact, most of the inspection reviews require the exercise of judgment, an assessment involving hues of gray, rarely black and white. The FAA person brings her or his experience, training and knowledge to the application to an incredibly vast array of certificate holder situations. These variables are not easily displayed on a black and white matrix. The DoT Inspector General’s sole focus on quantifiable elements of the FAA inspectors’ job task assessment is a classic case of analytical dissonance. The determination of the efficacy of an individual’s performance cannot be exclusively resolved in numbers of certificates, hours, activities, etc. metrics.

Such a myopic view ignores the degree to which the inspector, his management and the certificate holder(s) can effectively communicate. The FAA inspection policy is transmitted from a national office staffed with people who are most familiar with an FAR, an AD or a new initiative. That guidance is passed through regional and local management to the places where the theoretical meets the practical. The transfer of those critical points from headquarters to the field is essential to effective safety programs.

The folks in Washington develop and assess the macro numbers; from that information, they design specific tactics to attack deficiencies. That management model ONLY works if the FSDO or CMO manager can get his/her ASI to accept and act on the directive congruent with the wisdom of Washington. Based on recent Congressional oversight, many field level personnel are “empowered” to believe that their interpretations have equal validity to the “gospel” which their manager has delivered from Washington. This link between policy articulation and regulatory implementation is not part of the IG’s report. It is, however, an important measure of how well the new data driven, proactive safety program can impact airline safety practices.

A second example of shades not within the IG’s objective assessment is the matching of inspector resources with the real regulatory needs of a certificate holder. The largest carrier is typically a stable organization with time tested policies and practices; it is largest because it operates the most airplanes. Thus, under OPM personnel GS level determinations, that airline is most likely to have an FAA inspector with the greatest seniority, most training and largest resume of exercises of judgments assigned to the GS-15 position.

Conversely a new Part 121 operator or a regional carrier with a major equipment addition plans gets fewer OPM points. That certificate holder is more likely to have a junior FAA inspector assigned. He or she is typically a recent alumnus(ae) of the FAA Academy and has not been subjected to the harrowing decisions of whether to allow additional time to interpret a complex AD at midnight. Even more nebulous on an OPM or even FAA staffing model is the case in which a new CEO has reorganized the maintenance department bringing in some young talented quantitative mangers who have completed reading (comprehending?) 1/3 of the FARs on MX. These fact situations do not fit easily at the all black or all white personnel models cited by the IG. The assignment of the right human resource to the regulatory task requiring exquisite exercise of judgment depends on giving that CMO or FSDO manager the discretion to pull Mr. Jones and substitute Ms. Smith even when the OPM numbers do not justify it.

Quantifiable data is a key tool for management to measure performance; however, it cannot and should not be the sole criterion. The FAA’s current management structure has been unduly battered by Congress and the IG on episodic data which was not representative of reality and by undue reliance on “objective” numbers. Management is equal measures of art and science. The IG MUST acknowledge the validity of the exercise of discretion by managers and the Congress must be mindful of how its hearings have consequences well beyond the bounds of the facts of a specific case.

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