Once a year, I quit pretending to be the wellspring of regulatory knowledge and invite you to come along and take a look at an FAA inspector’s job functions and examine the good as well as all the accompanying warts and blemishes of this government job.
In 2004, I wrote about how to become an FAA inspector in the AMT article titled: “Crossing Over.” While this FAA inspector’s job is the best one I ever had in aviation; in that article, I only pushed the positives of this job. This time around I will try to balance that less than notable contributions to journalism by letting you take a peek behind the curtain and look at some of the negatives of this job; like doing an en-route inspection and riding on a jump seat.
What the general public fails to realize that second only to investigating a fatal accident the next least favorite thing for an FAA inspector to do is to perform an en-route inspection. While it appears glamorous to sit up there in the front office with a 180-degree view of the world at 35,000 feet, the truth is, en-routing is not a fun thing to do.
Getting a seat:
There are two ways for an FAA inspector to get on a jump seat. The first is to show up at the gate unannounced and request a jump seat. This direct approach throws the gate agent into a low level conniption fit because on top of everything else that is going wrong that day, now the FAA shows up and this guy wants to do an inspection!
Witnessing a normally nice person unravel under all that pressure is not pleasant. The second option is to phone the carrier a day or two ahead of time and get a hold of the airline jump seat coordinator to schedule a seat. This is my personal choice. While it is true you lose the element of surprise at the gate, my way is a bit more civilized.
Once you get the coordinator on the phone, you provide the who, what, when, where, and why information along with your ID number. Since my ID number is way under 3000 they know right off that I am an old dog. So due to my advanced years, he gives me a modicum of respect as he checks the computer for jump seat availability. If there is no one listed, then I have the seat.
Scrutiny by the TSA:
Next hoop to jump through is the TSA security checks at the airport. My job requires me to dress in a suit coat and tie. However, the only other people in the queue that are dressed up like me are pilots, crewmembers, or Federal Air Marshals. Everyone else in line, young or old, looks like they are on their way to a rock concert or beach party, so naturally I stand out.
At the entrance to the TSA screening line, I flash my FAA ID and jump seat form to the uniform TSA agent. The immediate reaction to my ID is either suspicion that I am packing, or some inbred fear that I am a semi-important government official that they haven’t been trained to handle. So the predictable response is they put a little check mark on my jump seat form. What that little mark means is when I get to the X-ray machine, and show the screeners the form, the only thing they see is the check mark. So I get pulled out of line and get treated to a special inspection behind the privacy screens.
Now I am well aware that the FAA and TSA have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that says once the FAA inspector shows his ID and badge, he or she just goes through the line without being frisked. The reality is TSA suffers from frequent personnel turnover at many airports, so the word about the MOU never filters down to the new guy. So rather than fight the system, it is easier for me to spend the next couple of minutes getting my stocking feet wanded, then wait 15 minutes for a TSA supervisor to show up, and have to tell him who I am, show him my ID all over again, and explain what I’m doing in his airport, all dressed up.
The gate agent: