On Thursday night I posted the narrative that emerged about the Southwest Airlines-FAA maintenance debacle. Now I’d like to post some of my observations and offer some policy lessons from the April 3 hearing. You should read the Thursday post before you look at this one.
- The “collaborative” relationship between airlines and regulators doesn’t have to end. We need not return to the adversarial days; it’s possible to ensure safety better when airlines are encouraged to self-report. (A Wall Street Journal article this morning showed how collaboration between airlines, the FAA, and the National Transportation Safety Board allowed for understanding of a crucial safety issue.) Several members of Congress, including Chairman Jim Oberstar, a smart, well-informed, and extremely influential voice on aviation issues, said that the collaborative relationship as manifest in the FAA’s Customer Service Initiative needs to be scaled back. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii commented on the “too-close relationship between the regulator and the regulated.” Ranking member John Mica said that he “was a strong advocate of a risk-based and self-reporting system” before this “wake-up call.” But there was no indication that collaboration and self-reporting are themselves to blame. Southwest self-reported as it should have. The problem was personnel.
- This is fundamentally a personnel problem, as the testimony by the whistleblowers documents. Douglas Gawadzinski felt that he could make exceptions to FAA inspectors’ guidance — and that the FAA brass would approve of those exceptions. The personnel problem continued up the chain to Thomas Stuckey, James Ballough, and safety jefe Nick Sabatini. All of these men interacted with Gawadzinski, at least enough for him to claim them as his mentors (although Ballough said that claims of closeness between him, Sabatini, and Gawadzinski are “false”). Complaints about Gawadzinski were not responded to until after Southwest’s lapse and their subsequent violation of the airworthiness directive. The personnel problem demands a personnel solution. Sabatini took “full responsibility” for the safety lapse during his testimony. But like so many other executives who take this responsibility, he didn’t offer to resign — the proper response when personnel you oversee fail so spectacularly to do their job over a sustained period of time. The answer is not to make the airline/FAA relationship more adversarial; it’s to exercise management and create channels through which appeals can be made. As U.S. Special Counsel Scott Bloch testified, “The FAA has a preference for reprisal against courageous whistleblowers.” Sabatini identified several reforms the FAA will make along these lines, but they won’t make a difference unless the brass changes the culture of the agency with management that makes clear what expectations are.
- Independent oversight is probably necessary. At least for now, with no top brass threatened over this incident, a watchdog will be necessary to make sure that the FAA is following through with management changes. DOT inspector general Calvin Scovel said that the FAA culture in the Southwest Regional Office was one of “allowing, not mitigating, recurring issues.” Weakness in national oversight, he said, caused problems with the Southwest Airlines CMO to persist. He recommended an independent body outside the FAA’s inspection line of authority to check into whistleblower and dissident concerns.
Congress is good and steamed over this issue. Oberstar called it a “systematic breakdown of the airline safety oversight system” and “malfeasance bordering on corruption.” “If this were a grand jury hearing,” he said, “it would result in an indictment.” Aviation subcommittee chair Jerry Costello added that the FAA “totally failed” in its duties and that this was not primarily about Southwest Airlines. Costello also wisely offered pointed remarks to the U.S. Senate, which continues to hold up the FAA reauthorization bill that the House passed as well as holding the confirmation of administrator-designate Bobby Sturgell (he isn’t the right man for the job, but the FAA desperately needs leadership).
If you’re interested in reading more from the aviation blogosphere, here’s a sampling of other bloggers’ chatter on the hearing:
- “Upper-FAA management threw their supervisor — Doug Gawadzinski — to the wolves. I hope there isn’t any doubt in any FAA manager’s mind that the same can’t happen to them when the spotlight starts falling on the Air Traffic side of the FAA. Oversight of the FAA has returned to Washington. It is long overdue. Fair warning.” [Get the Flick]
- “The FAA incompetence and arrogance you see on display in these hearings is systemic. It is pervasive. It is so all encompassing that most people — including several committee members in these hearings — have been reduced to referring to it as the FAA’s culture.” [Get the Flick]
- “Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), a solid defender of the aviation industry, took the FAA to task yesterday on Capitol Hill delving into to whether the agency’s relationship with the airlines it oversees is in need of reform. I think a close relationship with FAA has both pros and cons.” [Jetwhine]
- “I especially liked it when Sabatini was put on the spot by one Congresswoman who suggested that no, this was not, as he had offered, the act of an individual, or individuals — it was representative of a business running with no checks, no balances, and a totally dysfunctional culture. In other words, no Mr. Sabatini — this was on your watch. You are responsible. This isn’t about a few “rogue” individuals screwing up.” [PlaneBuzz]
- “The Southwest Airlines folks thought they were doing what FAA had commanded. Then, for some odd reason – perhaps the continuing squabbles between FAA employee unions and the agency itself – some inspector did what we all lose sleep over when we fly. They changed their mind. Or, even worse, another inspector was given the evidence and developed a completely different interpretation of the incident, as well as the potential outcome.” [Rob Mark's comments on this blog]