Aviation’s Inconvenient Truth: We Forgot About The People

The recent incident of a door pod separating from an Alaskan Airlines Boeing 737 in mid-flight has brought renewed attention to several complex aviation issues surrounding safety oversight and checks and balances. Most significant is the question of the government’s responsibility to the ultimate customer, our citizens. And how the government prioritizes the welfare of those citizens against the efficiency of an airspace system for commercial purposes.

In the case of the Boeing incident, “the government” is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which also happens to be the aviation regulator.  “Safety oversight and checks and balances” are collaborative tools to achieve positive results.  They are not efforts to second-guess and criticize. In theory, organizational behavior is managed through regulations and oversight to ensure compliance with requirements, generating a system of checks and balances to support the government’s overall objectives.

The regulator’s responsibility is to objectively determine, through inspection and observation, whether an organization is complying with directives it is required to follow and, if not, to act promptly and efficiently so the organization returns to compliance.

The regulator is not responsible for internal quality control and is not supposed to tell the regulated organization how to run their business. In other words, the regulator should not try to fix an identified problem—that is the responsibility of the management of the regulated organization.  The regulator is instead charged with the responsibility of informing the organization of the situation and ensuring the problem is fixed—or taking action to stop further activity by the non-compliant organization.

Once we step outside these lines, regulatory oversight’s effectiveness is weakened. In the case of Boeing, when the FAA Administrator stated that an FAA inspector would inspect every B737 to ensure its safety, he may have assumed responsibility for each aircraft’s production and quality assurance. That action potentially risks making the FAA a participant in the solution without any real management control within Boeing. It was a stop-gap political act made in crisis and a “Mission Impossible” for the FAA.

Interestingly, it points to other conflicting mandates within the FAA that create confusion about who the government ultimately serves. This creates a relationship where the FAA—the regulator—regulates organizations, such as air carriers, that they perceive as their customers while not realizing there may be unintended consequences for people who are the ultimate customers of governmental service.

Confusing the line between Regulator and Regulatee…

The airline industry we know today effectively started in the early 1900s with a stamp, an airmail stamp to be exact, when the US Post Office provided capital to subsidize small airmail operators who would eventually become future airlines.

It was the beginning of a new industry. It was also the beginning of the conflict in the government’s mission to support aviation’s growth and expansion while simultaneously regulating and restricting it in the name of safety. The dual mandate remains to this day and is the genesis of conflicts that have yet to be reconciled.

The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) was established in 1938, evolved into the Federal Aviation Agency in 1958, and was renamed the Federal Aviation Administration in 1966. All the while, it continued to be charged with the mission of supporting aviation growth and regulating air traffic in the U.S. However, the FAA was also given the responsibility of operating an air traffic control system trying to keep up with the exploding growth of aviation under deregulation, thus becoming a regulator and service provider within the same industry.

The Federal Aviation Agency’s early focus on “regulating air traffic” was viewed as oversight of airlines and other operators. As aviation rapidly expanded, so did the need for regulatory oversight. However, it was labor intensive and required many inspectors, examiners, and auditors. It also needed compromises due to budget and political decisions.

Very early on, the FAA decided to establish a system of designees, individuals within organizations authorized to conduct examinations, perform tests, and issue approvals and certificates on behalf of the FAA. In creating the program, the FAA reported: “The FAA doesn’t have the resources to do all the certification activities necessary to keep up with an expanding aviation industry. Using designees for routine certification tasks allows the FAA to focus its limited resources on safety critical certification issues as well as new and novel technologies.”

Designees became standard within the industry, thus significantly reducing the required number of FAA employees and the associated costs. Designees became “the FAA” while employed by the regulatee.  This system created an employee of a company whom the FAA empowered to make decisions that can affect the bottom line of the same company that is paying their salary.

At the very least, this program created the appearance of a conflict of interest and risked confusing people about who they work for. It begs the questions, “If we need to have non-FAA personnel be safety inspectors, are we asking the FAA to do too much?” and “Should the FAA mandate be better defined and focused since no one organization can, or should, be responsible for everything associated with aviation?”

Blurring the line further…

Established by Congress and charged with the dual mandate to support and develop the aviation industry while simultaneously ensuring safety through regulation, the FAA became the single government agency for aviation in the US. This allowed a single agency to develop rules and regulations, interpret them internally, and rule on decisions affecting aviation operators and the public concerning activities under the FAA’s purview.

In 2000, following a Presidential Directive, an internal reorganization occurred, and the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) was established. This was an administrative action of an existing role since the FAA had provided air traffic control services since its inception. ATO was still wholly within the FAA and still reported to the same FAA administrator. ATO became the Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) within the U.S. for the provision of air traffic control services.

Predating this action, the FAA had no formal regulator for the provision of air traffic services, either internally or externally. Comparatively, ASNPs in other countries may have been for-profit commercial companies or hybrids involving government and industry with external supervisory organizations and regulators.

In 2005, the FAA established the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service (AOV) to provide dedicated oversight of the ATO.  However, AOV was not independent and was still within the FAA.  Adding to the complexity, it was positioned as a subordinate organization within the Office of Aviation Safety (AVS) and lacked a direct line to the FAA Administrator.

Like the FAA Designee program, the lack of external oversight creates additional challenges to the FAA, the aviation industry, and, most importantly, the public.  At the very least, it creates the appearance of another conflict of interest.

However, the more significant concern is the potential risk of creating a level of autonomy within the FAA, where it becomes easy to forget the ultimate mission—to serve all American citizens, not just those working in the industry or flying in aircraft.  History has many examples showing that without independent and external checks and balances, an organization will continue to pursue greater independence and authority, and any perceived threats to its primary mission—as determined within the organization—will be opposed.  In short, the organization forgets who the customer is and begins to serve itself.

Clarifying the line and focusing on the responsibility to the ultimate customer…

Just who is the FAA’s ultimate customer, and should they expect better service from their government?

The short answers should be, “The American people” and, “Yes, there are options to do better for all.”  However, we need to look at history again to better understand how the FAA views itself as a service provider and why these are the correct answers.

A 2023 post on the FAA website reported, “Our continuing mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.”  Further, it states: “Safety is our passion. We work so all air and space travelers arrive safely at their destinations.” (emphasis added)

While the posting acknowledges that “we are accountable to the American public and our aviation stakeholders,” it does not address the non-flying public, who seem to have been lost in the pressure to build the “most efficient aerospace system in the world.”

An excellent example of this perspective is the complexity of noise, its impact on people living near airports or under flight patterns, and how the FAA and the aviation industry respond to noise concerns.

We need to recognize the FAA for achieving the technological goals it set for itself in building the National Airspace System. However, their relentless focus may have contributed to obscuring ancillary distractions—like noise complaints—and the need for system efficiency usurped the impact of noise on communities.

Somewhat understandably, if it doesn’t fly, it’s not an FAA priority—and that includes people and communities suffering from noise. The change needed now is for the FAA—and all airports—to move beyond simply considering noise an “annoyance” and complaints a distraction, to embracing the concerns of the communities and helping address the issues with the same dedication and technology used to create the national airspace system.

Safety and efficiency, the two core missions of the FAA, are always a balance between two opposing forces—changing one always affects the other.  The change needed now is to include the health and safety of people on the ground impacted by noise and emissions pollution in the matrix and rebalance the total aviation safety equation. Safety should not just be for the people in the aircraft; it also needs to include people below the aircraft.

It does not have to be one or the other—we can do it all. The FAA does not work just for the airlines; it works for all Americans and has proven it can build the best aerospace system in the world. The change needed now is to create the quietest and most efficient system in the world—not just the most efficient.

FAA cannot be responsible for everything and the sole judge of its actions – that’s simply asking too much from one agency. It’s unfair to the American public and the industry. Better checks and balances are needed to re-establish an enhanced level of oversight.  The changes now required might include:

·      Oversight of noise and emissions actions should be the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

·      Airline business practices and customer service should be the Commerce Department’s purview.

·      While this has been debated for decades, the FAA ATO organization should be a separate entity outside the FAA, subject to external oversight.

Many areas could benefit from reassessing how the US operates the national airspace system. A good starting point is noise pollution, which is now called “the new secondhand smoke.”

The key to success lies in collaboration and compromise. Not all noise issues can be solved, but many can, and more can be improved.  All that’s needed is for all parties to approach the matter with a shared goal to make things better.   Everybody counts, and everybody deserves to be heard. Just hearing the people who are trying to talk is a good starting point.

Finally, while this article focuses on aviation and the FAA, the concepts apply to all government agencies providing regulatory oversight whose ultimate responsibility is the health and safety of all our citizens.  We just cannot forget about the people.

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