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From The FAA: W-Hot Line?

Who ya gonna call? In 1984, if I saw something weird in my house or perhaps something strange coming through my door, either I called Ghostbusters, the exterminator, or it was obvious that my in-laws were visiting. To this day it’s hard to tell the difference.

However, what if it’s something strange at your hangar or the weird flying habits of a pilot, now … who ya gonna call? Ah, that would depend on W-hot Line you want to pursue. Maybe you were fired unjustly or were discriminated against for refusing to sign-off an airworthiness release. The process you’d follow is different than if you witnessed unsafe fueling habits at the neighboring FBO. Investigating safety violations by the FAA is usually limited to one of two complaint process systems: the Whistleblower Protection Program (WBPP) or the Aviation Safety Hotline (ASH). Both programs are overseen by the Office of Audits and Evaluation, AAE-001, who authorizes AAE-030 to act on each complaint.

Two things we need to point out. First: Anonymity. The WBPP requires disclosure; no one is anonymous. The FAA withholds the complainant’s name during the investigation; post-investigation, all WBPP information falls under the Freedom of Information Act and can be disclosed. The Safety Hotline currently allows anonymity, but if the complainant calls in as anonymous, who’re we going to respond to? Think about it.

And two: Every complaint is investigated. All submissions are taken seriously and acted upon, perhaps not within the complainant’s desired timeframe. Documents have to be researched and people interviewed, which takes time.

The WBPP was instituted with the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, and made aviation-specific with the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR21) in 2005. An investigation brings the authority of the FAA to bear on behalf of the individual(s) wronged by their employer … as it pertains to safety. Discrimination can be termination or improper discipline. To ensure impartiality, investigators aren’t assigned from the same region as the complainant. For better clarification, please visit the WBPP website: www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/whistleblower.

Flight Standards still investigates WBPP per FAA Order 8900.1, Volume 11, Chapter 3: the WBPP ‘protects covered employees of air carriers and their contractors and subcontractors …’ The investigation looks for violations where the employee declined to participate in, or circumstances in which the employee was compelled to commit a violation.

Investigate and document

To conduct an investigation, the FAA contacts the complainant(s) and documents details through interviews; they then confirm the complainant’s information and document. The investigation then determines any corroborating witnesses who are interviewed and their input documented. This often reveals other employees experiencing similar discriminations, who will be interviewed and, that’s right … documented. To be fair, reliable company personnel are interviewed and their side documented.

The FAA investigator collects all evidence, interviews, and documentation before taking enforcement action/corrective action against the employer (if necessary) and prepares the investigation report, or closes the matter out with no action. The entire investigation shouldn’t exceed 45 days.

Immunity for reporting

Won’t the FAA pursue a violation against someone (the employee) who violated a rule? If said employee reports the violation to the FAA, then Order 2150.3B – Compliance and Enforcement Program, dictates procedures providing ‘immunity from enforcement action to persons who provide information about violations’ with a Special Enforcement Consideration (SEC).

NOTE: submitting a complaint doesn’t guarantee WBPP status. When the employee approaches the FAA, the inspector advises the employee about the WBPP and provides a SEC, if necessary. The investigation and resulting decisions are often coordinated with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and if necessary, the Department of Labor (DOL).

The FAA can divert attention away from the complainant where OSHA can’t. Often OSHA investigates the discrimination side before the FAA gets involved on the safety side; this isn’t a problem. However, OSHA isn’t as smooth with the anonymity-thing; it can’t research airworthiness paperwork or have access to aviation sites, so its requests for information may not be as subtle. So if pursuing a WBPP, your name may come out.

If the employee wants to file with the DOL, he/she has 90 days from when the FAA and the DOL consult each other. The DOL investigation takes up to 60 days and according to the gravity of the violation, the inquiry could include the inspector general (IG). When the IG gets involved, the investigation can get intense.

The ASH program is aimed at all, including general aviation. The ASH was set up to ‘provide an outlet for anyone to express concerns about unsafe aviation situations without fear of reprisal’. ASH is geared to allow reporting on issues including, but not limited to: maintenance improprieties, aircraft incidents, suspected unapproved parts, and Federal Aviation Regulation violations.

When one accesses the website at www.faa.gov/contact/safety_hotline, they can either phone or email a report in. The fields on the email form allow one to keep their identification anonymous by requiring only the email address (for response) and a message; the name and contact phone are optional; the phone number for telephone submission is (800) 255-1111. The anonymous approach may soon be eliminated to keep from becoming a frivolous hotline and concentrate on serious issues.

The ASH is researched similarly to the WBPP; it is investigated by an impartial regional office, which is assigned randomly to any one of the eight regions. The answers are routed back through AAE-001; this provides control and guarantees a timely response. AAE-001 tracks all questions and issues for ASH, assuring no issue goes stale.

Consumer hotline

Another avenue (formerly the Public Inquiry Hotline) called the Consumer Hotline (CH) is not a complaint hotline, but allows the public an outlet for questions. You may be concerned about the impact of aircraft engine noise on your cattle or perhaps you think chicken wire is a valid cure for bird ingestions in a 737 engine. CH ‘responds and refers inquiries from the public about aviation matters’; issues that go through this avenue are handled differently from the WBPP or ASH.

A question or concern going through the CH process has to be directed; Aircraft Maintenance won’t answer operations questions and vice versa. An issue is researched by staff members who specialize in that particular field. Some questions can be answered with a simple phone call and a review of the regulations. Then you have issues that, in order to provide the attention the question deserves, demand that time be taken to pursue the question to its accurate conclusion. These topics may take time and might be re-prioritized if events dictate the use of resources. However, all subjects are directed and all issues are answered; unfortunately, the answer(s) may not be what was sought. Also, reference the point made previously about anonymity and how it affects response time to the questioner. The CH is being revised to possibly eliminate anonymous issues and filter valid problems from non-FAA issues.

So whichever direction you go with a complaint, take your time and think it out. What are you looking to do? Be patient, these things take time, if they’re to be done right. And if you do see something strange or weird … please tell my father-in-law to sit tight; I’ll be by to pick him up.

Stephen Carbone is an aviation industry veteran of 28 years. He works at the Boston regional office in the Flight Standards Airworthiness Technical Branch. He holds a master’s degree in aviation safety systems.