The Tail Wagging the Dog

The FAA's relationship with the industry

As I recently read an article that discussed the alleged airworthiness directive (AD) noncompliance issues that several airlines faced this spring, it boiled up in me again — the frustration about what the FAA/industry relationship has evolved into since I have been in this business.

I remember the first FAA inspector I ever met when I first started working on aircraft more than 20 years ago. He came to our noncertificated repair facility and asked to take a look around. We spent the day looking and finding areas that needed to be improved. Although some of the conversation was a bit tense (at least for me) in the end, this FAA safety inspector graciously explained what he thought I needed to do differently and was on his way. I don’t recall that there was anything critically wrong with what we were doing but I know that he left me feeling less intimidated by the thought of an inspector coming to see us. I think he was sincerely trying to help.

Not long after that I moved my family and went to work for a certificated repair station. I didn’t know it at the time but I had sort of a knack for understanding the regulations and how they all tied together. Because of that “knack” I was very interested in the workings of the inspection office and the quality control procedures of the repair station. Thus I quickly landed in the inspection office, reviewing logbooks and repair station paperwork as well as helping to deal with the FAA when they would visit. The FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) was directly next door to our facility and so we worked closely with the FAA almost daily. Working with the FAA from within a repair station was definitely more structured than the noncertificated facility environment that I came from but even so, the relationship with the FAA was one of mutual respect and cooperation.

Turning point
Looking back I think the turning point was the tragic event when the ValuJet DC-9 crashed into the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996, killing all 105 passengers and a flight crew of five. The cause of the crash was a fire that broke out in the baggage compartment of the aircraft. The cause of the fire was traced to oxygen generators that were being transported in the baggage compartment that caught fire. As it turned out, a certificated repair agency that was contracted to perform maintenance for the airline was the focus of a detailed and revealing investigation. Without a doubt, the event was tragic and could have been prevented.

I see this accident as a turning point because after the investigation revealed the inadequacies of the targeted repair station, the FAA, due to public/congressional pressure, began to change their approach with all repair stations. Since the FAA provides oversight to industry, the public perception was that the FAA could have prevented the tragic event and therefore should be doing something to ensure it didn’t happen again. (A perception that I think is false, but powerful nonetheless.) They seemed to step up their oversight efforts without any clear direction of exactly what to do differently other than just spend more time looking for regulator violations.

I believe that the issues within that particular repair station were not a reflection of the state of the industry, but rather a unique, isolated situation created by the poor oversight and poor practices of the subject repair station.

The framework for the relationship that industry has with the FAA is quite lopsided. The FAA holds a power position over industry, similar to the power that law enforcement people have over society. It seems like the FAA safety inspectors began to feel more obligated to find violations and file enforcement actions than to work with the industry to make improvements.

Letter of Investigation
This is about the time that I first found out about a Letter of Investigation, or what I call “fishing letters.” They existed before but because the filing of violations enables the use of “fishing letters” and violation filings were on the rise, they were being used more.

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