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:
Trying to make up lost time I half run, half walk through the terminal with my shoelaces still untied until I arrive at my gate slightly winded and disheveled. I again introduce myself to the gate agent and show my ID. The agent then types in about 300 keystrokes into her computer until she mutters “there you are!” This is computer talk that means I am in the system. The agent then trades my FAA jump seat form for a boarding pass. Then I politely ask if I can board with the crew so I can make proper introductions and swap IDs, before the passengers board.
At most airports the airplane is sitting at the gate and the crew is already on board. So the gate agent, who is secretly glad to get rid of me, punches in the door code at the gate door, opens it, and sends me down the jet way, unescorted. Since most jet ways are at least 60 feet long, I stop about half-way down, lean against the handrail, tie my shoes, straighten my tie, and make sure I can represent the FAA in a professional way.
When I step from the jet way to the aircraft, a flight attendant greets me. Her keen eyes scan me as if I am a potential ax murderer. While I am being checked out, I already know what she is thinking. It’s either “No one told me we were boarding,” or “Who is the guy in the suit, he’s too old to be an air marshal.” Soon the other flight attendants gather around, and once again I show the FAA’s ID and tell them that I will be in the cockpit for the whole flight. I also tell them that I will play the role of the second person in the cockpit when one of the pilots takes a potty break. Well of course now they are all smiles at that bit of good news and they offer me meals, water, coffee, magazines, or anything else they think I would want, because now I am the captain’s problem, not theirs.
I do have one flight attendant story to tell. It was at Dulles Airport, about four years ago and I was on my way to the left coast. The flight was scheduled out in 90 minutes but since a crewmember was on board, the ramp agent allowed me to board early. At the left main entrance door, I was met by a pretty 20-year-old flight attendant.
She had less than three months on the job and she was still bubbly, and talkative about her new glamorous aviation career. Half-listening to her life’s story, I showed her my ID and was about to ask her where was the rest of the crew, when she continued in a gushy fashion that I was the first FAA inspector that she had ever met and said that she just had to hug me, and she did!
It was a full face-to-face three-second hug, not a quick squeeze, or a friendly off to the side clutch. This was the real thing! I was stunned! I was 58 years of age at the time; my face was about as attractive as a wedding cake left out in the rain. No one, absolutely no one outside of my wife and mom, goes out of their way to hug me, and I like it that way.
But I can remember time slowing down when she hugged me, and thinking: This is nice, followed instantly by the question “why is she doing this?” Then a nano second later I remembered what my dad told me years ago when he was being hugged by all the young women at my brother’s wedding years ago and I kidded him that Mom would get after him. My dad who was in his late 50s at the time, stuck his finger in my chest and told me, “Son when a young woman hugs you when you are my age, it’s only because they figure you are either too old or harmless!”
I lost my mind! Old I am! Harmless I am not! For the next 20 minutes I had that flight attendant running around the cabin showing me carry-on oxygen bottles, mega-phones, safety demonstration gear, the latest revision to her flight attendant manual; asking her questions on use of door slides, how to handle a passenger who is so heavy he can’t get a seat belt on, and on and on until my blood pressure returned to normal. When it was over, she said with the proper amount of respect, “Mr. Inspector, I never had a cabin inspection like that one, even the company’s final exam was not that bad.” With my tattered dignity firmly in place, I said, “And you never will again, unless you try to hug another FAA inspector!”
Meeting the captain:
Airline captains come in many sizes, shapes, and genders but only two types. There are the military reservist/ex-military type or the guy who came up through the civilian aviation route. All are competent flyers, but the military types have this air about them that the left seat of power belongs to them as if it was predestined to be theirs before they were born. This guy wants everything formal and wants to be called captain!
The civilian trained captain is still amazed that he is now sitting in the left seat and considers himself extremely lucky to be there and always introduces himself using his first name. After the mandatory shaking of hands comes the exchange of IDs. I show them my FAA creds, they show me their pilot certificates and medical, and I write down their name and number and check the date on the medicals to see if they are current.
One of my checks is to see if they signed their pilot’s certificates. You would be surprised to learn that many pilots forget this little, but important detail. One ex-military type, who first regarded me like I had head lice, gave me his temporary pilot certificate with a new type rating but the signature block was blank. I looked at the certificate and looked back at him, he looked at the certificate, and looked back at me and nervously said, “What are you going to do to me?”
Savoring the little bit of tingle to my central nervous system that always happens when I wield the full weight and power of the bureaucracy, I paused, and very quietly said, “Captain, I am going to give you my pen so you can sign your name on the certificate.” I was his best friend for the rest of the flight.
After the ID check I then give the flight crew my 20-second briefing that I have rehearsed and refined over the last two decades. I first tell them that I am an airworthiness inspector who is more interested in the nuts and bolts of the aircraft then I am in their flying abilities. That statement almost always relaxes the flight crew. I next cover the emergency procedures, oxygen mask, communications, logbook, sterile cockpit, and opening and securing the cockpit door. The captain, now satisfied that I have done this before, goes out to brief the cabin crew and the co-pilot does the walk around.
As the time for departure gets closer, the activity in the cockpit increases. I test my oxygen mask and pressure, copy information off of the airworthiness certificate and registration forms mounted on the bulkhead or cockpit door, and check the logbook. Then I set my radio for ATC and cockpit intercom and plug in my headset. Around the same time I ensure that all bags are tied down and pilots are seated and belted, the flight attendant appears and gives us the head count, and reports that the passengers are seated and the main cabin doors are closed and the cabin is ready for take-off. When she closes the cockpit door that is the time for me to get into the jumpseat.
Jumpseats are small, little fold-out things that are hidden away in the cockpit on purpose, as if something was wrong with them. Nevertheless they are shrewdly designed to slide out of bulkheads or attached directly to bulkheads or slide along fixed rails riveted to the bulkhead. They have tricky little locks, knobs, handles, or catches that are designed to make you look like an idiot the first time you are trying to get the seat in the down and locked position. The actual seat itself is not much bigger than a bedpan and the seat cushion is as hard as a diamond, but not as comfortable. The seat’s lumbar support is as firm as wet bread. Now parked in the seat, you strap yourself in with a five-point harness, and remain frozen in place for the duration of the flight striking a pose similar to a hood ornament on a ’48 Buick.
While the bigger wide body aircraft jump seats are more comfortable and rate a solid 3 on the comfort scale; with 10 being equal to a La-Z-Boy. The worst jump seats are on the regional jets that rate a minus 47 on the same scale.
In those jump seats you sit directly above the nose gear and behind the communications pedestal that divides the two pilot’s seats. In most regional jets you have less than 10 inches between seat and the center pedestal; so getting into the jump seat is tough. For this reason, I tell both pilots that there is just no graceful way for me to get into the seat. So I warn them that if they don’t want to witness a sight that would frighten women and children it might be better for each of them to look out the side windows until I am seated.
The signature of getting into each jump seat is written on the shoes of every FAA inspector who inspects regional jets. If you look closely you will see little nicks and punctures in the toes of the shoes. This is caused by his shoes hitting the heads of rivets and screws on the back of the pedestal. These deformities on the shoes are a mirror image of the nicks and punctures in his scalp caused by the interference fit between ones’ head and the overhead circuit breaker panel.
The rest of the ride is pretty straightforward and quietly professional, except at cruise where now I notice that unlike the pilots of four years ago who would talk about wine, women, and song, today’s pilots talk about seniority, benefits packages, and job security.
One captain, in an attempt to make me more talkative asked me what I thought of the then, new FAA Administrator. I said nothing, but looked up at the microphone for the cockpit voice recorder on the overhead panel. He noticed what I was looking at and said, “If it bothers you Mr. Inspector, I can pull the CVR circuit breaker.” I replied with a slight smile on my face, “If you do that, I will have to write you up.” Around 130 miles out from the destination airport, things get busy again as we begin to descend. I spend all my time looking outside the cockpit for aircraft or terrain that might cause a quick end to this long ride. For some reason, excellent pilots make lousy landings with an FAA inspector on board. The mains touch down like a feather but the nose wheel always hits the ground hard. So this reverse pile driving technique transmits the shock of landing right up through my jump seat cushion to my lower back and spine. Taxiing in, between back spasms, I created this little ode to a jump seat:
It’s a fact that all aircraft jump seats, are poorly designed.
For all confer pain and suffering to one’s behind!
With regulatory power I could change this evil perception.
By requiring each aeronautical engineer to sit in his own creation.
Strap him down for two hours of takeoffs and landings is what I seek!
This will give him new insight into the old proverb “turn the other cheek!”