From The FAA: Both Sides Now

Sept. 5, 2014

In 1968 Judy Collins recorded a song by Joni Mitchell called ‘Both Sides Now’ in which she opines about Clouds, Love, and Life; yeah, in that order and neither making sense. She first compares clouds to feathers, angels, and ice cream before going dreary by saying clouds only rain and snow. It was at this part that I changed the knurled radio dial (we had those back then) to a better AM station (we used to listen to those back then). Stay with me here …

NTSB recommendations

I read a Sept. 29, 2010 article in the Washington Post where the reporter says, “The NTSB issued 21 recommendations after the Air Midwest crash. The FAA still has not implemented two of them: to prohibit the person training a mechanic from serving as the inspector on that same part and to increase oversight of work done by contracted mechanics.”

The article throws blame on the FAA for dragging its feet on reacting to NTSB recommendations. Now this lends itself to the reader’s interpretation, but as the sole NTSB A&P investigator at the time, I worked this accident; I led the Aircraft Maintenance and Records group. In fact, I conducted the interview where these facts came out so I’m able to look at this "cloud" from both sides.

When a reporter misstates information, it draws the public’s attention in any direction but the real issue. For instance, the reporter says there were 21 recommendations related to this accident, NTSB/AAR-04/01, which is true. However seven of them dealt with weight and balance, which was also a probable cause of the fatal accident; minor point, but misstated nonetheless.

There were actually 14 recommendations concerning maintenance and the two the FAA allegedly didn’t implement were: 1. prohibiting the person training a mechanic from serving as the inspector on that same part (actually the word ‘task’ was used), and, 2. increase oversight of work done by contracted mechanics. So, let’s take a look at these …

Trainer not also the inspector

No. 1. Prohibiting the person … same task. I remember my jaw hitting the ground when the required item inspector (RII) in this accident admitted to inspecting his own work, albeit while training the mechanic. When I worked for Brand X in Omaha, NE, I held a RII and one of the biggest Bozo-no-no’s was to sign off your own work — training or no training. That being said, the FAA addressed this issue with a regulation 38 years before this unfortunate accident. In 14 CFR 121.373 (c), which says of a RII, “No person may perform a required inspection if he performed the item of work required to be inspected.”

Now I’ve met many of you folks while working this job, working for the NTSB, and when I was in industry; I could count on one hand the mechanics that can’t employ common sense in interpreting that regulation. But the reporter’s question was: why didn’t the FAA address the recommendation?

The answer is: How many times do you have to say the same thing? You ladies and gentlemen, with the rare exception, know what a regulation means. If you don’t, you’ll ask your fellow mechanic, management, or your FAA office inspector, etc. For the FAA to re-regulate issues would be like saying your state should write a stronger law saying, “You really, really can’t go through red lights, and we mean it this time … a lot.” At what point does redundancy become redundant?

Increased oversight

Then there’s No. 2. Increase oversight of contracted workers. A change like this doesn’t qualify as a regulation; the topic is too broad to be all inclusive. So what the FAA doesn’t address in the regulations to the industry it addresses in policy and procedures to itself. I never wrote that recommendation for industry to police contractors; I wrote it for the FAA to accomplish internally. 

During this investigation I remember this issue very well; it involved a lot of sleight of hand and shell game tactics, so the FAA had to address this recommendation through internal policy. It spoke directly to the inspectors, the folks that actually conduct oversight and on-site surveillance of air carriers and their contracted workers.

In the Flight Standards Information Management System (FSIMS), the FAA Inspector’s Handbook, the requirements of contract maintenance oversight are laid out for the inspector(s) to continually and proficiently keep a close eye on operator/contractor interaction and what kind of product they’re putting out. To make allegations that the FAA ignores recommendations in favor of political stalling or lip service is irresponsible.

Rewriting a regulation

So what goes into rewriting a regulation? I asked the late Bill O’Brien that question years ago when I sought to change a Part 135 reg. He said, “It takes three years and a bunch of money.”

Let’s see what that means. A quorum must meet to determine the feasibility of even changing the rule in question, e.g. how will it affect the industry financially, what will be the impact, how many will it impact, and will the industry be better off for it as proposed? In the quorum many people get involved: budget experts, legal counsel, subject matter experts, and industry analysts. The studies, meetings, and legal deliberations take many months before finally resulting in a new rule. So then it’s put on the books, right?

Nope, not quite. Now it goes out to industry for comment — your comment, specifically — which is handled through the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in the Federal Register. This is where industry, unions, manufacturers, and private owners get to read and comment on what regulations are being proposed or their changes. This is also where the politicians get involved when their constituents write for help fighting a proposed rule. A NPRM may undergo many revisions ranging from the grammatical to a complete rewrite of the proposed rule. Finally when all the T’s are dotted and everyone’s eyes are crossed, the three-year journey ends: the rule is placed in the books.

Policy change

By comparison, a policy change (as in answer to the second recommendation) may take a few weeks and some internal review before it becomes official and enters the FSIMS, which is updated daily on the website. Recommendation No. 2 was handled internally; the answer was made. Changes like these are open to the public and may require use of a search engine to verify.


Organizations that question the integrity of FAA action may not verify their information, but may base their findings without research. The FAA operates transparently; there should be more reliance on what the FAA makes available and their experienced voices.

The NTSB itself relies heavily on FAA experience when investigating accidents, not only for the knowledge of aircraft models and certification standards, but because the FAA acquires its talent from industry; these men and women know where to look for hidden answers and how to bring them to light. 

The political environment today often requires organizations to fingerpoint, but I don’t think the public benefits from being placed on the sidelines thinking no one cares or listens. No organization is perfect, but while a cloud may be dark and malignant on its underside, it’s brighter topside; it’s dependent on which side you look at. 

Stephen Carbone is an aviation industry veteran of 28 years. He works at the Boston regional office in the Flight Standards Airworthiness Technical Branch. He holds a master’s degree in aviation safety systems.