Cause and Effect

Nov. 1, 1999
On a gray Monday morning, in February of 1998, I was at my desk, praying for a dull moment, when John Wensel, an Operations Inspector, poked his head into my cubicle

On a gray Monday morning, in February of 1998, I was at my desk, praying for a dull moment, when John Wensel, an Operations Inspector, poked his head into my cubicle and told me of a new FAA "Ticket" program.

Being a mechanic, and therefore a card carrying pessimist, my first thought was that of a full-page cartoon published in a popular GA flying magazine. The cartoon showed an FAA inspector in a cop uniform — FAA badge on his hat, a cigar clenched in his teeth, and, with a foot up on the tire of a general aviation aircraft was writing a ticket with obvious relish for a helpless pilot/owner.

This cartoon was a media response to the industry's ire with the FAA's "Zero Tolerance" campaign. Zero Tolerance was based on the theory that for every infraction of a regulation, no matter how small, an enforcement action was taken. Like all FAA initiatives, Zero Tolerance was in part the result of the then DOT Administrator Elizabeth Dole's "White Glove" inspection of the airline industry and the NTSB findings from the 1986 Cerritos Accident in which a Piper aircraft downed a Mexican DC-9 and sadly 64 lives were lost. So intense was the industry and media backlash that the Zero Tolerance campaign was replaced in 1990, by then new Administrator Admiral Busey's, "Compliance for the Nineties.#148 This campaign promoted safety training and compliance, rather than absolute and strict enforcement of the regulations, and things settled down for a while.

"They are going to unleash the Rottweilers of the Bureaucracy once again," I told John; he nodded, and left me to finish my prayers. My response to the new program was based on my aforementioned memory fragment, not reality. Without doing some research into the new proposed "Streamlined Administrative Action Program," which was the ticket program's real name, I was content to go with my perception. And, like most perceptions, it had nothing to do with reality.

Like me, it appeared that the media and trade organizations could not get around the dark visions of previous programs; so the now nicknamed "ticket program" was defamed, cursed, pummeled in the press and left to die, stillborn. However, everything that takes place in government is based on the law of cause and effect.

The major cause that assigned top priority to this "new" policy initiative was a 1998, General Accounting Office (GAO) Report # RCED-98-6 titled "Aviation Safety: Weakness in Inspection and Enforcement Limits FAA in Identifying and Responding to Risks." The report stated that FAA inspectors are under-reporting safety violations and further stated that although FAA guidance requires inspectors to enter all observed problems or violation, 35 percent of Flight Standards inspectors said they reported half or fewer of the problems or violations they observed during inspections in fiscal year 1996.

Senior FAA management did not take the GAO report lightly. The cause of this less than perfect reporting process was identified as a paperwork nightmare of biblical proportions just to issue an administrative action. For those of you who have never been blessed via the U.S. mail with an FAA Administrative action, they fall into two categories: Warning Notices and Letters of Correction. These are found in Part 13 of the Federal Aviation Regulations and are routinely used to identify and correct minor infractions of the rules such as a repair station that missed installing a new revision in one of its manuals, or an operator that ran past the due date on calibration of instruments and then corrected it. Anyway, the staff found that the average paperwork processing time for a non-safety related administrative actions took 75 working days to process.

Now 75 days is a long time to wait for a slap on the wrist. We all know that aviation runs at warp speed, so any infraction of the rules must be corrected just as fast. The GAO report at first gives one the impression that FAA inspectors looked the other way when finding a minor infraction rather than writing an Administrative Action. I do not believe this is the case at all. While it is true that Administrative Actions were not processed, I believe the vast majority of FAA inspectors, who, once the problem was identified, corrected the problem in an informal, very effective, and efficient way. Not wishing to put any one inspector's career in jeopardy, I have many recollections of one particular FAA inspector, who was about my size, age, and weight. While working in the field, he addressed minor infractions of the rule immediately by using an effective, but less sophisticated, method —taking the offending mechanic in the back room and using words strong enough to take the chrome off a 1958 Cadillac. If the offending mechanic did not seem penitent enough after the inspector's fire and brimstone speech, then there were worse consequences.

With that passionate defense of my peers off my chest, and identifying the GAO report as the cause of the new policy, what was the effect? The "effect" started back in February 1998, when the FAA announced an initiative to implement a new "streamlined administrative action program" that will reduce paperwork and shorten the 75-day wait to 1 to 3 days, but the new policy had some problems connected with it. While it allowed an FAA Inspector to issue an on-the-spot, Warning Notice/Letter of Correction (read this as a ticket) to the alleged violator, saving gobs of time, the new policy only allowed the mechanic or repair station 10 days to rebut the charges of the alleged infractions. Quite frankly, we did not do a good job explaining the 10-day rebuttal clause in the new policy. The industry took the "ticket" program as a "guilty as charged" approach and the mechanic "perceived" that they had as much chance winning an argument with an inspector as he did talking a meter-maid out of a ticket. Naturally, this did not bode well with industry.

In December 1998, the Administrator redirected the program focus, which took until August 1999 when the new, revised Streamlined Administrative Action Process was implemented. You can tell it was revised because we changed the last word "Program," which refers to external or field policy to a less bureaucratic word, "Process," which refers to "internal policy."

When the new process was turned on, you probably never even felt a ripple. No reason to, like I said, it is an internal process only. The only difference industry should notice from the old administrative process is that the computerized letter of Warning or Letter of Correction will be sent out in less than a week and yes, you now have 30 days to rebut the letter. The new policy will be under a 120-day review starting in January 2000 to see if "the effect" has to be further tweaked or not.

About the Author

Bill O'Brien