Day Job: A day in the life of an FAA safety inspector

Ever since I became part of the Washington, D.C., federal bureaucracy in November of 1985, family, friends, and people I don?t know, have asked me, what does a D.C. bureaucrat do? How does one explain to these innocents that on good days I write rules and regulations and on bad days, I manage chaos. But be it a good day or a bad one, I must still remain faithful to the oath that I took when I was sworn in as an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector in 1980. That oath requires me to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, and support to the best of my ability the primary mission of the FAA, which is to enhance aviation safety and encourage the growth of U.S. aviation.

But try giving that answer a few times and you find out pretty quickly that my 1950s value system does not sell well in the new millennium. So instead of being written off as an altruistic idiot, I answer their questions with a history lesson. I tell people that the word "bureaucrat" comes from the French word "bureau," which means a writing desk. So the English noun, bureaucrat describes a person that sits behind a desk. I also tell them the term "red tape" also has French origins that go back to the days of the old French monarchy. When a Paris bureaucrat finished a document or imperial edict that was a long time in the making, the document would be presented to the petitioner wrapped in a red ribbon. The longer the wait, the longer the ribbon. Hence, the origin of the term "red tape."

But even after my history lesson, I sense that they are still not satisfied, so I tell them that perhaps the best description of a bureaucrat came from my first born son, Mike, when he was just 5 years old. On his first day in kindergarten he was asked by his teacher what his father does for a living. He answered proudly: ?My daddy is a civil serpent!? They laugh and go on their way, as do I, but I always feel that I did not adequately or fairly describe the work that hundreds of D.C. bureaucrats in the FAA, who labor quietly and sometimes desperately, do to hold this thing called aviation safety together.

What follows is my attempt to justify my existence at 800 Independence Ave., Washington, D.C., or to put it another way, ?What does a bureaucrat do during his day job??

First a little background. On Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004, I published in the Federal Register a draft copy of the proposed changes to Advisory Circular (AC) 65.26, Charles Taylor, ?Master Mechanic? awards program for public comment. This was a routine request for comments, and quite frankly, I did not expect a whole lot of public reaction because most of the changes to the AC were administrative in nature that helped clarify some of the original requirements for issuance of the award. But right off, I did get a comment, via email. It was a serious one that gave me pause to ponder before I responded. I think it is worth your time to read my response to the commentator?s email, in order to provide you with a window into my day job.

I will open my window with a disclaimer. While all comments sent to the FAA for review are also available to the public, I have removed the individual?s name, address, and edited out other personal or related information from the following text out of respect for the individual?s right of privacy. I also had to edit my original email response in order to meet this magazine?s word and format requirements. It is important to remember that everyone in this country is entitled to his or her point of view especially when it honestly questions long-established practices and procedures. Here is the individual?s edited email comment to AC 65.26 draft.

EMAIL: Ref: U.S. DOT FAA Master Mechanic Award by a government agency

I think it is inappropriate for a government agency to spend taxpayer dollars on this kind of wastefulness. I think this kind of activity should be turned over to private industry to fund and to monitor. American taxpayers should NOT be involved in paying for any part of this.

My reply: Thank you for your comments and recommendation. I would like to address your comment on the costs to the taxpayers involved in maintaining a government-sponsored award program and your recommendation that the government should transfer those costs to private individuals or organizations. I must admit that I believe like you do, that in many cases private industry can perform many government functions and tasks more efficiently and effectively because they do not have to deal with the daily oversight and accountability burdens from Congress, GAO, Inspector General, and the media.

To begin, I would like to explain the reasons why the award was issued, the associated costs to keep it running, and finally discuss the overall effectiveness of the CT awards program if it was run by a private organization in comparison with the FAA.

Why is the CT Master Mechanic Award issued?
The idea for the CT award happened in 1992 when I was invited by the Teterboro Chapter of PAMA to speak at a Golden 50 Award presentation that recognized six PAMA members with 50 years in aviation maintenance. I liked the meaning behind the award ceremony and on the way home I came up with the idea that the FAA should recognize these quiet heroes who took us from radial engines to the jet age. So with senior FAA management approval, I wrote the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award Advisory Circular. The award was named in honor of Charles Taylor, the Wright Brother?s mechanic who designed and built the first aircraft engine and, like the Golden 50 Award; the individual must have been in aviation maintenance for at least 50 years.

In 11 short years, the Charles Taylor (CT) ?Master Mechanic? award has become the most prestigious award that the FAA can present to a certificated aviation mechanic or repairman, and it is universally recognized as something very special by mechanics everywhere. Usually, the CT award is presented to the new Master Mechanic in front of his peers during the annual Inspection Authorization renewal meetings, which are held by the local Flight Standards District Office.

The CT award ceremony always includes an overview of the new Master Mechanic?s maintenance career. The overview also serves as a reminder to younger mechanics in the audience of how important the strong individual values, such as character, professionalism, and integrity are to those mechanics who went before them.

I regret that I cannot qualify or quantify these values into numbers or graphs. But these values are as real to aviation mechanics as the computer monitor you are reading this reply on. We mechanics need this strong individual value system based on trust because each mechanic must rely on the accuracy of the description of the work in the aircraft?s logbook that is signed off by the mechanic who preceded him. Without that high level of trust in another mechanic?s signature and work, the U.S. aviation maintenance system would fail inside of a year. This yearly reminder to the aviation maintenance community of the importance of these values alone, in my opinion, is worth the cost of the CT awards program to the taxpayers.

Cost of the CT award program. Over the last five years, the FAA has issued an average of 89 Charles Taylor Master Mechanic awards a year. Each award winner receives a Charles Taylor ?Master Mechanic? tie tack; his or her spouse receives a stickpin with the Master Mechanic logo embossed on it, and a CT certificate signed by the FAA Administrator. Each tie tack costs $1.23, the stickpin is $1.10 and each four-color CT certificate costs the government 48 cents to print.
The direct cost to taxpayers to fund this awards program each year is $2.81 cents for each award, times (X) the average number of CT awards issued each year (89) for a total of $250.09 a year.

As of Aug. 1, 2004, a total of 981 CT awards have been issued since 1993. The total cost of the CT awards program for the last 11 years is $2,756.61. To help put these costs in perspective, the FAA budget projected for fiscal year 2005 is $17 billion.

Could the industry do a better job? Unlike industry, the FAA already has an infrastructure in place in the form of 100 strategically placed Flight Standards District Offices (FSDO) in every state nationwide. The Aviation Safety Inspectors (ASI) at these FSDO review the applications for the CT award and present the award at an appropriate event. These same inspectors usually know each applicant?s individual maintenance history personally. So it is not unusual for an FAA inspector to sign one of the three required letters of recommendation required to apply for this award. This kind of government/industry mutual respect and recognition is rare and is found nowhere else in the federal government. While the average age of a CT award winner is 73 years old, it is not uncommon for a mechanic who earns the CT award to continue to maintain aircraft well into his late 70s and 80s. So the CT award is not considered by the FAA or industry as a good-bye gift for services rendered but recognition for ensuring aviation safety up to that point in time.

Summary: As I pointed out the FAA CT award program has very small direct costs associated with issuing the award. The overall impact to the taxpayers is small, but the overall benefit of the program is far-reaching. It is doubtful that a private organization could effectively compete with the FAA in every state and expect to make a profit using similar cost figures. I also believe that both the award winner and the mechanic community attach a stronger importance to the CT award not only because of what it takes to earn one, but because the award is issued by the U.S. government vs. an organization or company that is just performing the task for a profit or prestige.

With that said, I hope I convinced you that this award program has value, the overall costs to run the program are small, and private industry or an individual would be hard pressed to match the FAA?s efficiency in delivering this program to the aviation maintenance industry. If you have any questions or additional comments please fire an email back to me. -- ob

There you have it, a window into my world. I change careers on Jan. 3. 2007. Anyone interested in a day job as a bureaucrat in Washington?