Is There A Problem With FAA’s Safety Culture?

When it comes to its air safety regulatory functions, the FAA really seems to be taking it on the chin this year. First there were the problems last spring with certain inspectors allowing Southwest and American planes to fly, despite being overdue for safety checks. The contretemps over that led the DOT to appoint an Independent Review Team to take an outside look at how the FAA goes about regulating aviation safety. Just a week after the IRT released its report, earlier this month, came news of FAA certification engineers complaining that senior management ignored their concerns that the Eclipse 500 very light jet had been rushed through certification before it was ready. At a hearing before the House Aviation Subcommittee last week, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel and FAA inspectors provided details on problems with the Eclipse jet during the certification process and described pressure from higher-ups to get it certified on schedule. In both cases the common concern was over “coziness” between FAA safety regulators and those being regulated. As Aviation Week put it, in a Sept. 22 story, “[In the April incidents], the FAA had been referring to airlines as ‘customers,’ and Congress warned that passengers should be the agency’s only customers, not airlines, not manufacturers. The intimation was that the agency’s safety vigilance degraded the closer its collaboration with industry partners.” The IRT noted that some of its observations “tend to confirm our fears that sharply conflicting regulatory ideologies not only exist but are allowed to persist within the FAA with little or no attempt to resolve or manage them.” Moreover, they noted that such disparities “persist even now, long after the events of this spring provided the agency a rather serious opportunity to reflect on its met hods, style, and regulatory decision-making processes.” I think this problem is real-but none of the media coverage of these problems, either last spring regarding airline inspections or now concerning the Eclipse certification, has identified the underlying cause. It stems from the dual mission of the FAA, as both the air safety regulator and the ATC system operator. Although these functions are nominally separate, thanks to the creation of the ATO to pull together all the ATC functions, the agency still sees itself as one corporate entity, all reporting to one chief executive, the Administrator. In recent years, in a well-intended effort to become more businesslike, the FAA has come to think of the aviation stakeholders as its customers. While that is entirely appropriate for the ATO (it provides a vital service to aircraft operators, which in nearly every other country those operators pay for directly), it is dead wrong for a safety regulator. As Dorothy Robyn wrote in the Brookings paper I highlighted last issue, “Airlines and aerospace firms are the regulatees, not the customers of FAA regulators” (emphasis in original). Robyn went on to explain: “The goal of ‘acting more like a business’ is appropriate to the FAA’s role as a service provider. In fact, that goal was the motivation behind the creation of the ATO. However, it is not an appropriate goal for the regulatory side of the FAA: although the regulators’ performance may well need improvement, they are carrying out an inherently governmental function. . . . There seems to be some genuine confusion among rank-and-file employees about the FAA’s mission-predictably so, given the agency’s dual and potentially conflicting responsibilities.” I’ll close with these additional thoughts from Robyn’s excellent paper. “This kind of confusion as to organizational mission is inevitable when the FAA performs two such different and ‘inconsistent’ functions, and separation of the two functions would add clarity to the missions of both agencies.” And that, of course, is what her paper goes on to recommend.