Yesterday, Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and three cosponsors introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure “arms-length” safety regulation of airlines by the FAA. The legislation comes as a result of the inspection debacle that took place this spring. During hearings on the subject, Oberstar repeatedly criticized what he called a “cozy” relationship between the FAA and the airlines it inspects.
The Aviation Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 (HR 6493) calls for:
- The creation of an Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office (ASWIO) within the FAA. The office will receive, process, and investigate internal reports of safety violations or lapses, making recommendations to agency management when appropriate. Whistleblowers’ identities are to be kept confidential to the extent possible. ASWIO is to be politically and operationally independent; it is to report to the DOT inspector general and Congress.
- Congress finds that the FAA’s safety mandate is compromised by its “Customer Service Initiative”:
The Agency issued a vision statement in which it stated that it has a “vision” of “being responsive to our customers and accountable to the public” and, in 2003, issued a customer service initiative that required aviation inspectors to treat air carriers and other aviation certificate holders as “customers” rather than regulated entities. The initiatives described in paragraph (3) appear to have given regulated entities and Agency inspectors the impression that the management of the Agency gives an unduly high priority to the satisfaction of regulated entities regarding its inspection and certification decisions and other lawful actions of its safety inspectors. As a result of the emphasis on customer satisfaction, some managers of the Agency have discouraged vigorous enforcement and replaced inspectors whose lawful actions adversely affected an air carrier.
- The legislation therefore calls for the FAA to amend its documents to clarify that the airlines are not customers, that the traveling public is the agency’s only “customer,” and that airlines cannot request or demand that certain FAA inspectors conduct or not conduct inspections.
- Flights standards inspectors must undergo a two-year “cooling-off” period before going to work for an airline subject to FAA safety inspection.
- Inspectors may not oversee safety issues at any one airline for more than five years.
- The FAA must conduct monthly reviews of its computerized safety concern reporting database.
Some of these proposals are sound, but I’m not sure how much good they will do in an agency whose leaders seem chronically incapable of transcending its culture. A whistleblower investigation office is only useful if would-be whistleblowers trust that their reports will be taken seriously and handled discreetly. It’s a personnel issue, then, and not one that can easily be resolved by Congress. It is imperative that FAA employees be able to report discrepancies, violations, and improprieties to their superiors. Congress should insist on leadership changes; without them, a whistleblowers’ office will be of little use.
And while a cooling-off period and a five-year max on work with one airline seem sensible, I wonder how they would work in practice. Is institutional memory unduly hampered by the five-year max? And would the cooling-off period unduly impair a retired inspector’s ability to get a job in his discipline? Are there enough airplane-safety-related jobs around that don’t involve working for a certificated commercial airline?
At least one of the mandates is a slam-dunk: no airline should be able to lean on FAA managers to keep an inspector off a job or get an inspector favorable to them.
The biggest problem with this legislation is that it will force the FAA to become even more institutionally schizophrenic than it already is. The FAA’s mandate includes regulation of airlines and service provision for those same airlines. It is hard for an entity to balance those two roles. If the FAA rolls back its “customer service initiative,” that may harm its ability to work with airlines on air traffic control, an area in which airlines actually are its “customers.” Through the Air Traffic Organization, the FAA provides air navigation services to airlines and other aircraft operators.
By spotlighting this institutional schizophrenia, this legislation subtly makes the case for splitting up the FAA into two bodies: one regulatory, the other a service provider. It might even be more cost-effective and customer-friendly to privatize or commercialize air traffic control services.
In short, HR 6493 is not a panacea, but it offers a few immediate benefits while exposing the need for more systemic reform.