GAO: FAA needs to shore up data-driven safety programs

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to implement more efficient and effective processes to use data to spot potential hazards that can lead to accidents, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

FAA has moved to risk-based, data-driven programs to oversee the aviation industry and to identify and respond to safety problems in the nation’s airspace system. But challenges in data and staffing affect FAA’s ability to implement these programs, according to the report released Feb. 14.

These challenges are important because the FAA did not meet its performance target for commercial air carrier safety for last year, due to fatal accidents, and the volume of air travel is expected to increase greatly, Gerald Dillingham, director of GAO’s physical infrastructure issues, said in testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

The FAA has improved the accuracy, completeness and analysis of its safety data at GAO’s urging, according to the report. However, in some cases the agency still is hampered by a lack of reliable and complete data, which is necessary for identifying and mitigating safety risks. In other cases, the FAA has the data, but does not fully use it to identify nationwide safety trends, GAO said.

These shortcomings will increase the difficulty of modernizing the FAA’s systems as planned under the Next Generation Air Transportation System. They also will also make it difficult to integrate the growing number of passengers and aircraft into the system. “The skies over America are becoming more crowded every day,” Dillingham said.

More than 740 million passengers flew in 2006 and that number is expected to climb to about 1 billion annually by 2015, he said.

The FAA also faces difficulties in hiring enough inspectors to oversee the aviation industry and air traffic controllers -- who have been retiring at a faster rate than the agency anticipated -- to assure safe air travel, GAO found.

The agency has progressed in implementing management processes and systems that use best practices of private sector businesses, but it must still institutionalize these efforts, GAO also reported.

“FAA’s progress led us to remove its financial management from our high-risk list. Similarly, new and improved acquisition processes and oversight have contributed to FAA reporting that it has met its acquisition cost and schedule goals for the last three years,” Dillingham said.

Still, although the FAA has established a cost-estimating methodology for investments, it has not implemented it, GAO found. And although that agency has reported cost savings of $99.1 million and cost avoidance of $81.9 million over the last two years, the FAA received a qualified opinion on its most recent financial audit because it cannot support the accuracy and completeness of about $4.7 billion for equipment reported in the financial statement.

The FAA also needs to consolidate its facilities and outsource some of its services to further cut costs, according to GAO.

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