ATOS: Safety and Inspection Process for the Millennium
Will It Provide a Higher Level of Safety or an Enforcement Gold Mine?
By Stephen P. Prentice
Technicians in the air carrier business will be hearing quite a bit about ATOS in the near future. You may already have heard the magic words ATOS from one of your air carrier inspectors who probably just completed a course of instruction on it.
Technicians in Part 135 or 121 operations are acutely aware of the inspection process that goes on all the time with respect to their operations. Oversight and surveillance is designed to be constant and from time to time, the operations inspection people at FAA headquarters swoop down on you and perform a NASIP (National Aviation Safety Inspection Program) inspection. Enforcement sanctions usually follow.
NASIP has been the routine inspection process for many years and was considered to be the most intensive process to insure regulatory compliance by an air carrier. The NASIP inspections that we are all familiar with will eventually go away in their present form and will not be applied to carriers under ATOS. Unfortunately, it took Valujet to start the ball rolling and now the inspection process is going to change dramatically for the future.
NEW AIR CARRIER INSPECTION SYSTEM
ATOS stands for Air Transportation Oversight System. To quote from FAA publications ". . . ATOS is a new FAA oversight approach that uses system safety principles and systematic processes to assure that air carriers have safety built into their operating systems."
Safety will be built in and somewhat automatic under this new system, that is, if it works as advertised.
WHY THE NEED?
Back when Valujet jumped on the scene, the FAA was severely criticized from all sides because they were perceived as not doing their job. Their programs and their inspectors were alleged to have been ill-equipped and poorly trained. Of course, those of us in the business know this just was not true, but the politics of the day required a reaction to this accident and others. ATOS — this new safety and compliance oversight initiative is the direct result of all the reviews that occurred during and since that time.
FAA enlisted the aid of Sandia National Labs, an agency of the Department of Energy that has extensive background in safety and security areas. FAA requested Sandia to provide their expertise in improving the so-called Surveillance Improvement Process (SIP) from 1976 in order to sharpen the FAA oversight process. From this relationship grew Sandia's contribution in putting together the ATOS system. Implementation of ATOS however, will mean more government intervention into your air carrier activity. In addition, more budget, more resources, and as usual, more people will be required.
Don't get the wrong impression. ATOS is a well thought out and well-intentioned program designed to solve air safety problems. The main aspect of ATOS that was absent from previous inspection programs, as I see it, is the huge increase in the collection of operations data. When all this data is collected; it is analyzed, cataloged, and digested. Conclusions are gathered in order to identify potential weaknesses and strengths of air carriers operations. After collection, these inspection reports are fed back to the carriers with any dangerous trends highlighted. The dangerous trends are what the system is designed to detect somewhat automatically.
The whole system is simply going to be computer-based. Data will be put into the machines regarding failures, incidents, and many other factors; and the computer will weigh this data and kick out a conclusion. Pretty scary stuff. Just think, the computer will tell the air carrier what needs to be done. Not real people. The other facet is that the air carriers will provide the data to hand the FAA the facts to possibly bring action against them. However, in addition to the dangerous trends, the good things that are found are also highlighted. Best practices are sought and hopefully will be shared with others who might benefit from their use.