The Perfect Storm

Rogue inspectors and cozy relationships


With great fanfare, the Secretary of Transportation recently released the report of the “blue ribbon panel” that was appointed in May to examine the safety culture of the FAA. Their report, “A Review of the FAA’s Approach to Safety,” was a result of the Southwest Airlines and American Airlines oversight debacle by FAA personnel and the fallout from the Congressional investigation.

The report
The Perfect Storm describes the events and their timing that joined together to produce extraordinary events that were viewed as the fault of FAA management and they were accused by many of causing severe economic damage to the parties involved.

The reference to rogue inspectors and cozy relationships is used in the report and stands out in this observer’s eye as the core issue of the report.

All managers, technicians, and executives involved with aircraft maintenance — and in particular air carrier maintenance — should review this report as part of their continuing education on how the bureaucrats look at FAA safety efforts today.

The report itself consists of 75 pages but is summarized in the first few pages. (You can find the complete report at www.dot.gov/affairs/IRT.)

A word about the authors: there are five appointees to the panel, none of whom were or are frontline people in the maintenance field today or in the past, nor do they need to be, but it would be useful. Ed Stimson is the only general aviation person, having run GAMA for many years. Randolf Babbitt is a former Eastern Airlines pilot who ran ALPA after Eastern’s demise many years ago. Malcolm Sparrow is an author and professor. Carl Vogt is a former NTSB member and William McCabe is a retired Air Force Colonel who was concerned with safety at the NBAA.

You can read their complete resumes in the report.

Notably missing from the group are people like John Goglia, also a former member of the NTSB, but certainly more recently current on maintenance matters relating to the FAA than any one else. Those selected did, however, come up with some good advice for the FAA organization.

The guts of the report
The report starts with 13 safety recommendations as follows. This gives you a good idea what they were concerned about in the report. One must keep in mind that this is a critique of FAA safety efforts. The italicized words are my comments.

“FAA should retain the right to ground any plane not in compliance with an applicable Airworthiness Directive (AD). (No surprise here. FAA inspectors have had this power for a long time.)
The FAA should provide timely information about new AD requirements, in advance of compliance dates, to all relevant FAA field offices. (These notices go out in the normal course to everybody anyway … just get on the list.) Those offices should then be responsive to any carrier that requests assistance in the form of progress toward compliance audits or reviews, in advance of the AD compliance dates. (That’s part of the job of the Principal Operations Inspector or Principal Maintenance Inspector anyway, where an air carrier is concerned.)

The FAA’s voluntary programs are vitally important to the future of aviation safety, and should be retained. (Well … that’s why FAA created them!)

The FAA must abide by the rules circumscribing these programs in order to prevent the erosion of compliance. (That’s why the rules are spelled out. The rules under AC 58A have been tightened up considerably.)

Voluntary Disclosure Program (VDRP) data have not been routinely analyzed at a higher level within the FAA. There are two quite different purposes for such analysis, both of which the FAA should formally recognize. (One purpose is of course to identify safety risk; another is to eliminate any risks that may result from abuse of the program.)

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