Matt Thuber AIN ONLINE
AIN Blog: A Much Better Way to do Aviation's Business
February 7, 2014
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  • The job of an FAA inspector must be incredibly boring. I imagine them sitting at their desks all day facing down gigantic piles of paper: letters of authorization, certification compliance packages, applications for operating certificates, enforcement actions, ad infinitum. And when the beleaguered inspector gets one pile stamped, signed and delivered, an FAA factotum appears with a new stack and thumps it onto whatever clear space remains in the office. Every day, looking up blearily from the stacks, our overworked inspector looks fondly out the window and wonders whether she can take a few minutes away from the office to visit the airport and see if her charges are playing nice or need some friendly nudging.

    But no, she has become inured to the needs of her customers, the pilots, mechanics, repair stations, charter operators and airlines that she oversees. Her biggest pleasure these days is finding a missing comma or misspelled word, so she can send the package of paper back to the applicant for revision and resubmission, which at least gets it off the desk for a while.

    This is the system that we–the aviation industry–have created. We must like it because we put up with it. But is it effective? Does burying our aviation safety inspectors in mounds of paper actually promote and enhance safety? Isn’t there a better way to put all these talented people to better use?

    Of course there is, but it would require a radical re-thinking of the way we manage this entire regulatory-industrial complex. The solution, however, is extremely simple and would have an enormous, unprecedented and welcome impact on aviation safety.

    Here it is: assume that any entity that has to comply with FAA regulations does so but verify compliance by observation and oversight.

    Wait a minute? Isn’t that the way it already works?

    Sort of. When I rent an airplane and go flying, I’m not required the get the FAA’s permission each time. I am required to comply with the regulations and I try my best to do so, although I’m sure there are some that I occasionally miss. But the FAA basically puts the burden of compliance on my shoulders.

    But let’s take this a step further. Buy a business jet and one of the first obstacles to operating that jet is the need to get RVSM approval so you can fly above 29,000 feet (and burn less fuel). The process is that you have to create an RVSM training and maintenance manual (assuming the airplane is properly equipped), then submit that manual to your local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), where it often sits for weeks waiting for an overworked inspector to look it over and give it a stamp of approval. Operators have complained for years that the RVSM process is a burden, that it doesn’t enhance safety, that FAA inspectors could spend their time on more important pursuits and that the approval process should be eliminated. The FAA disagrees and swears that it will never change the RVSM process.

    What if you could create the RVSM manual for your new jet, email it to the FSDO then go flying right away? If the FAA didn’t like anything about it, they could call you back at any time or come visit and ask you to fix the problem. But the assumption, from the start, would be that you, the operator, have every incentive to comply with the regulations and that you did whatever was necessary to write your RVSM manual properly, perhaps even hiring a consultant to help. How is this any different than the FAA assuming that you are in compliance when you push the thrust levers forward every time you take off? Do you need FAA approval for everything that you do? Of course not, but you do have to comply with the regulations.

    Let’s take this to the ultimate conclusion: issuance of an operating certificate. Applicants for new Part 135 charter certificates complain that it takes the FAA sometimes up to two years to issue approval. Why not make approval contingent on compliance, not on the whims of an FAA inspector who has way too much paperwork to plough through? In other words, the applicable rules are in Part 135; comply with them in a legally provable fashion and you’re good to go. This same philosophy, by the way, could easily apply to certification of aircraft and parts.

    I can hear the naysayers firing up their keyboards already. This will never work, they’ll claim. People with substandard ethics will use this to subvert the regulations. Illegal charters will soar. Operators won’t even bother with proper RVSM compliance. Mechanics and pilots will pencil-whip logbooks. Someone will make fake parts.

    Oh, really? Like all of that doesn’t happen already. And when was the last time you saw an FAA inspector crack down on illegal charter or false logbook entries? The fact is, FAA inspectors spend so much time in their offices with paperwork that they have little or no time to interact with those who they try to regulate. The focus of the FAA has been way too much on correct grammar instead of safe operations.

    Look, I know that a high level of regulatory compliance is concomitant with a high level of safety; we’ve proved that over and over. But I also know that if a business depends on keeping its customers safe, then it has a big incentive to do the right thing and not cut corners.

    Yes, there are those who will always try to find a way around a regulation or just do the bare minimum to be in compliance. And how many times have you complained that the FAA should spend more time looking at the bare-minimums operators instead of those that understand how compliance makes them safer and stronger?

    Under this system, the operators, pilots, mechanics, manufacturers and so on would still have to do just as much work as they do now. But once they can prove that they have met the regulation, whether it’s RVSM or a test package for a certification program or even launching a new charter company, then it’s full steam ahead, but with the proviso that the FAA is free to intervene at any time. The FAA, in turn, would have to prove noncompliance with a specific regulation, not something that an inspector makes up just because he or she feels like it.

    This system would unleash a torrent of new aviation businesses, make people want to fly more and improve safety because FAA inspectors would spend all of their time in the field instead of in their offices in paperwork oblivion.

    Isn’t it time for a change?