FAA moves to improve safety oversight

The Federal Aviation Administration said it has made progress in systems and processes that would improve safety oversight after gaps in compliance were revealed in April. Robert Sturgell, FAA acting administrator, reported on efforts to fix the problems in a release dated Sept. 5.

The Transportation Department’s inspector general said in April that the FAA had developed too close a relationship with Southwest Airlines, which led to a breakdown in safety oversight.

The FAA has depended on airlines to report problems under a program that encourages voluntary reporting of airworthiness problems. The closeness of the relationship produced weaknesses in FAA’s national program for risk-based oversight, said Calvin Scovel III, Transportation’s inspector general.

Southwest continued to fly aircraft that had not been safety-inspected and which later were found to have fuselage cracks, according to the IG’s findings. When the airline notified FAA’s principal maintenance inspector, he did not ground the affected planes. Later, Southwest formally admitted the safety violation through a voluntary self-disclosure program and was fined, Scovel said.

The IG also said the FAA failed to protect from retaliation the employees who reported safety issues and to ensure that the airlines completed corrective actions.

The first action that agency took was to develop and make operational on April 30 the Safety Issues Reporting System, which is designed to give aviation safety organization employees another way to raise safety concerns if they feel they are not receiving the necessary airing or response from supervisory and management personnel, Sturgell said.

In other steps, FAA plans to propose rules for public comment in fiscal 2009 to address ethics policies for two-year restrictions on the interaction former inspectors can have with the FAA after they leave the agency's employment. The proposal would bring the FAA in line with existing restrictions for other federal employees, Sturgell said.

FAA also is expanding its Aviation Safety Information and Analysis Sharing program to blend in oversight data from the Air Transportation and Oversight System (ATOS), which has 117 air carriers participating, for a better view of nationwide trends, he said. The FAA is developing processes to analyze ATOS data, which FAA has now integrated with its Aviation Safety Information and Analysis Sharing program.

“FAA is determining the appropriate metrics to monitor national trends,” Sturgell said.

Senior airline officials must submit any changes to the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program, which is designed to report compliance discrepancies, to make sure officials at the highest level of the FAA are aware that corrective actions were taken, he noted.

Other system and process changes that are underway for improved safety oversight are a review of the Airworthiness Directive, an independent review by outside experts of the FAA’s procedures, Airworthiness Directive compliance audits and changes to the Air Carrier Evaluation Program, the agency said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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