Posts Tagged ‘safety’

The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing today to review several nominations in its purview, including FAA administrator-designate J. Randolph Babbitt and DOT deputy secretary-designate John Porcari. Opening statements are going on now. Babbitt is, as you know, the former president of the Air Line Pilots Association and a pilot at Eastern. According to Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is chairing the hearing at the moment, Babbitt is “the right person to lead the FAA at the moment.” (Wow, tough crowd.) Porcari is Maryland’s secretary of transportation.

Opening statements by Babbitt and Porcari have been posted on the committee’s website.

I’m not on the Hill today, but I am watching the hearing’s live webcast. I’ll bring you aviation-related highlights of the hearing throughout the day, so refresh this post for the latest updates. Stay tuned!



11:43. Interesting item from Babbitt’s testimony: “I have worked with members of Congress on major aviation safety issues, including one of which I am most proud, ‘One Level of Safety.’ I led this project in 1993 while I was president of ALPA. This program resulted in required regional carriers to operate under the same rules and at the same level of safety as their major carrier counterparts.” Of significant relevance given the attention paid to small-lift provider safety standards in the wake of the NTSB’s Colgan Air crash hearings.

11:48. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was principally responsible for torpedoing the confirmation of Robert Sturgell, former president Bush’s FAA nominee. He’s much happier with Babbitt today, about whom, when he slips up and says “if you are confirmed, he adds “if you’re not it will be a miracle.” Lautenberg asks about the New York / New Jersey / Philadelphia airspace redesign. Would Babbitt put a hold on the redesign until frontline air traffic controllers ha had a chance to weigh in? “I’m not exactly certain where that process stands at this time,” Babbitt replies. “On a personal basis, I would really like to solicit input from all the stakeholders in that area. . . . I think it’s very important that [controllers] have input in this process.”

Lautenberg then raises a parochial concern that is more than parochial, given the airport’s role in the system: reported controller shortages at Newark Liberty International Airport. “Can you assure us that the Newark tower will be staffed to the volume of performance we require there?” Babbitt: “It’s my hope that every tower in this country will be staffed and manned to the highest degree.” He refers to the “bubble of controllers being in a similar age, a band of age” who are going to retire soon. (And already are.–ed.)



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DALLAS — Six months after the debacle over safety inspections at Southwest Airlines, after which I concluded that the FAA had scapegoated Southwest with a massive penalty after it became clear that Congress would be scrutinizing FAA inspection practices and personnel. Southwest executives I spoke to emphasized that Southwest is in full compliance with FAA regs, and they reiterated Southwest’s long-term safety record. They also said that the incident has had no negative effect on long-term customer support or opinion — in fact, they told me, people were impressed with “how transparent we were” in dealing with the situation.

But given that Southwest had not yet paid the FAA’s record fine — reports indicate that the airline is negotiating it — I thought I’d see if the airline has any thoughts about improvements in the FAA’s structure or operations. It turns out they don’t. One executive I talked to referred to the independent review team that gave the FAA high marks last month. He also cited the superiority of the U.S. aviation system’s safety record, confirmed in August by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Given these assessments and results, he said, the FAA is doing things right.

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Welcome, new readers! For more blogging on aviation politics, click here.

First of all, big props to Obama and his campaign team for actually having a transportation agenda [PDF]. The McCain campaign devotes a whole section to manned space exploration but can’t spare a word for aviation. So, to Obama, an A for effort.

Now let’s dig into the plan:

As our society becomes more mobile and interconnected, the need for 21st-century transportation networks has never been greater. However, too many of our nation’s railways, highways, bridges, airports, and neighborhood streets are slowly decaying due to lack of investment and strategic long-term planning. Barack Obama believes that America’s long-term competitiveness depends on the stability of our critical infrastructure. As president, Obama will make strengthening our transportation systems, including our roads and bridges, a top priority.

Barack Obama believes that it is critically important for the United States to rebuild its national transportation infrastructure — its highways, bridges, roads, ports, air, and train systems — to strengthen user safety, bolster our long-term competitiveness and ensure our economy continues to grow. Investing in national infrastructure is especially important in our efforts to bolster our homeland security to meet international terrorism and natural disaster threats. . . .  Barack Obama will address the infrastructure challenge by creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments. This independent entity will be directed to invest in our nation’s most challenging transportation infrastructure needs. The Bank will receive an infusion of federal money, $60 billion over 10 years, to provide financing to transportation infrastructure projects across the nation.

Worthy goals. One of the core functions of government is to provide for infrastructure development and maintenance. How will this money be allocated? By DOT, or by Congress? Political realities mandate, for example, that Airport Improvement Fund monies go disproportionately to airports that do not need them as much as the highly trafficked and congested commercial hubs. How it gets allocated is key. (more…)

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Representative James Oberstar

Representative James Oberstar

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.

For news coverage, see the Washington Post story. Now, let’s dig into the legislation, which you can find through THOMAS or the GPO.

The Aviation Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 (HR 6493) calls for: (more…)

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The House aviation subcommittee is holding a hearing today on air traffic control facility staffing, “including concerns about staffing alignment and training at such facilities.” Here is the subcommittee’s background paper. Here’s what happened today:

Panel I

Hank Krakowski, the COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is the first witness. He first emphasizes the agency’s safety record in light of steep challenges. “Combination of training, teamwork, and technology” is the cause. FAA is convening a fatigue safety summit next week to address fatigue on the part of pilots and controllers. “We plan to hire 2000 controllers this year.” ATO is deploying more high-powered training simulators for controllers. ATO is also offering incentives to retain controllers eligible for retirement. He also says he is working with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) on hammering out a new contract.

Department of Transportation inspector general Calvin L. Scovel speaks next. The IG’s office has just complete a report on the issue of ATC staffing. See the inspector general’s report here [PDF]. FAA sees more controllers retiring than projected, but it is hiring more than projected. This is producing an overall less experienced workforce. Scovel’s recommendations: (1) FAA must improve control facility training. Must set standards for how much of a share of all controllers “developmental controllers” (i.e., trainees) may make up at a facility. It must clarify and centralize the organizational structure of the training process. (2) “FAA must address controller human factors” — situational awareness, fatigue, etc. Especially important with the influx of new controllers. (3) FAA must ensure “consistency and accuracy” in reporting controllers’ operational errors with respect to runway incursions, etc. The agency has in the past relied on self-reporting, which has not been sufficiently successful.

Next up: Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office. (more…)

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As I’ve written before, the failure of the FAA in the Southwest Airlines case and elsewhere seems to stem from a personnel problem. The safety inspection chain of command at the agency ignored and abetted an inspector who was consistently neglecting policies and procedures. This is not an indictment of the FAA’s collaborative approach to maintenance inspection. But at the hearing last week, Jim Oberstar and many others (GOP and Dem) criticized the “cozy” relationship between the airlines and the FAA and called for a return to the adversarial approach to regulation. Stung by congressional criticism, the FAA responded by swinging wildly toward austerity, the biggest example of which is this week’s American Airlines fiasco.

A WSJ editorial today pins the blame for the AA cancellations on Oberstar, whom it says the FAA is kowtowing to: “An industry-wide ‘audit’ commenced, and FAA inspectors set about finding something – anything – awry with an aircraft to show Mr. Oberstar and other Congressional overseers that the agency was up to the job of enforcing federal maintenance requirements to the letter.”

The editorial continues:

Mr. Oberstar and other Democrats in Congress would just as soon do to the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product and Safety Commission and other “consumer protection” agencies exactly what they’ve managed to do to the FAA inside of a month’s time. . . .

The FAA fiasco gives us a glimpse of what the world would look like under this reregulatory assault. It would mean that every business misstep, no matter how rare, could potentially result in industry-wide repercussions. Congress would call for more rules and greater enforcement, in the name of “safety.” And regulatory agencies would respond with overkill. The cost of doing business would rise, and consumers would pay for it in higher prices, less convenience or both.

Whether any of this would in fact produce safer toys or food or medicines is beside the point for lawmakers like Mr. Oberstar, whose real goal is to augment Washington’s power vis-a-vis industry. But it’s worth noting that in the case of air travel, safety gains have accompanied less regulation, not more.

We don’t need to change the way the FAA inspects aircraft. We need to change its circle-the-wagons culture and to root out personnel problems. A single Douglas Gawadzinski, left unchallenged, erodes institutional effectiveness. He and his supervisors should be dealt with, all the way up to top safety honcho Nick Sabatini. At the House hearing, Sabatini took “responsibility” for the FAA’s safety lapses. If he means that, he should probably resign. His successor should work not on public appeasement gestures (after this week of cancellations, I suspect the flying public has had it up to here with “safety”) but on sound personnel management.

Flying the Oberstar Skies [WSJ]

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According to an AP report, the agency is reassigning Southwest Region Flight Standards Director Thomas Stuckey to an administrative position without safety oversight responsibilities.

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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. (more…)

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faa-egg.jpgThere were systemic breakdowns in the FAA’s airline safety inspection program, key whistleblowers testified before Congress on April 3. One unaccountable inspector, enabled by a culture of relaxed standards, allowed Southwest Airlines (SWA) to violate FAA rules and airworthiness directives. FAA line staff, top agency officials, and SWA executives testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a hearing to examine whether “partnership programs” between airlines and the FAA have compromised safety. (For background on this issue, click here and here.)

Until the 1990s, the FAA had a rather adversarial relationship with the airlines they regulated. FAA executives say that the relationship hindered safety, as airlines would hide problems rather than report safety problems. In order to improve their ability to solve safety issues, the FAA launched initiatives aimed at developing a fruitful relationship with the airlines: the Customer Service Initiative (CSI), which treated airlines like clients rather than opponents, and the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (VDRP), under which airlines that disclosed safety concerns before the FAA uncovered them would not be penalized. The hearing was occasioned by the conviction of many committee members that these programs have tilted the FAA too far from its regulatory role. “The only customer,” said chairman Jim Oberstar in his opening remarks, “is the air-traveling public.”

The first panel of witnesses was composed of a number of current and former FAA inspection staff with roles in the SWA inspection debacle. Here’s what they said: (more…)

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WASHINGTON — In testimony today before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, several current and former FAA employees related their roles in the lapses in inspection of Southwest Airlines, how supervisors collaborated with the airline to minimize the punishments, and how a culture of lack of accountability was built up in the FAA’s southwest region.

More and more details continue to emerge about the Southwest inspections matter, which I’ve written about here and here. On March 6, the FAA announced a $10M fine against Southwest for operating forty-six of its 737-500 aircraft between March 15 and March 23, 2007. Under the FAA’s Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (in which airlines can self-report maintenance flaws without risking fines or public censure), the FAA reported the lapse in inspections on the forty-six aircraft for a specific defect: the possibility of cracks in the fuselage. (Six planes had cracking, as it turns out.) Southwest continued to operate these forty-six planes after March 15 — the offense for which they were fined — which Southwest claims was approved by the FAA. Today’s testimony makes clear that Southwest’s operation of these aircraft during that interval was approved.

One Douglas Gawadzinski, the principal maintenance inspector in the FAA’s Certification Management Office (CMO) for Southwest, was cast as the villain of the hearing. Bobby Boutris, one of the inspectors in the office, reported that Gawadzinski routinely made Boutris downgrade his notices to Southwest from enforceable “letters of investigation” to advisory “letters of concern.” Gawadzinski was apparently friendly with a former FAA inspector who had gone to work for Southwest, and he pressured the other inspectors to go easy on the airline, taking the FAA’s friendly regulator approach to the airlines much too far.

There’s a lot more to report, but the hearing will reconvene soon (with FAA officials and Southwest executives on tap to testify). I’ll write more when I get a chance. DEVELOPING…

UPDATE: The first part of my full report is here

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