A necessary evil. A necessary leech. The FAA, according to AVweb's CEO of the cockpit, is all those things and more. And in this month's column, he's even willing to admit some FAA bureaucrats are OK.
April 9, 2006
It had been a while since I'd had an FAA inspector in my jump seat and I was grateful that it was for a short leg from New York to Detroit. You usually don't see FAA guys on the seat on a transcontinental leg unless they really want to get to LAX for some non-fuzz reason.
FAA apparatchiks, like all humans in all professions, run the gamut from coolly competent to outright frauds and cads. Fred was a nice, competent guy and our ride together went well.
A little moderate turbulence happened over the south beach of Lake Erie, but other than that, this check went better than most. The best part of it all was that it wasn't my leg. Co-pilot Fran flew the whole thing and I just played the role of "pilot not flying," making the requisite radio calls, reading the called-for checklists and making sure our cockpit stayed sterile at the proper times.
The only real captaining I did was asking for an EFC when they gave us a hold that we never actually did because they later decided to vector us all over the United States and Canada rather than take the statistical hit of making us fly a big racetrack in the sky.
Fred from the Fed Speaks
As we blocked into the gate, Fred was trying to extricate himself from what has to be the most uncomfortable jump seat on our fleet. The jump seat on the 757 sits high and to the left, behind my captain's throne. There is a spring-loaded, folding footrest you can push down to rest your dogs, but if I have my seat pushed a little back like I usually do, you don't have enough room to drop the step. If you don't get the footrest to work, you have two choices: You can twist in your seat and kind of stand up on the cockpit floor to the right of the seat; or you can sit straight ahead and risk later amputation of both legs because your blood flow down there will be totally cut off.
"Good ride, guys," Fred said as he unbuckled and climbed out of the jumpseat/torture stool. He then grabbed his bag and got the hell off of my airplane.
It was a perfect summation of our flight together and exactly what I always want to hear after a check: nothing more, and certainly nothing less. If he has more to say, we are sunk. Bad things mentioned may turn up on some sort of report. Good things said can keep him on board long enough to notice something bad. A simple "good ride" floats my boat every time.
Fran speaks of Fred the Fed
"Man, he was annoying!" Fran was packing her flight bag in what could only be described as a huff and was muttering under her breath about idiots, bureaucracy and government lickspittles.
Fran, whatever could you mean? I found Fred to be a witty ninja of the skies ... a sort-of latter-day Charles Lindbergh without the Nazi sympathy or the tendency to hug trees and have affairs with German nationals.
"First of all, he smelled funny. Second, he was more than a little condescending with that 'guys' statement -- in case you both haven't noticed, I'm a girl -- and finally, he took notes the whole time and then never told us what he had been writing down."
Time To Deploy To The Layover
You can say a lot of things about this captain, but you can never say that I hang around in the cockpit any longer than it takes to knock down a coach passenger on my way out of the door. I had a good response to Fran's frustration, but it had to wait until we were both out of our jet and safely on our way to a very long Ann Arbor layover.
By the way, I used to stick around and say goodbye to all the precious passengers as they got off of my plane, but I gave that up a few years ago and not for the reason you may think. I didn't stop saying "buh-bye" because I was mad at the company and wasn't getting paid for it anyway (which I wasn't) or because I hated passengers (which I don't -- some of my best friends are passengers). It was simply because, like all of the passengers, I wanted to get off of the plane first and get on with what was left of my life.
Of course, usually I had to hang around the gate house waiting for the rest of my crew to get off and head for the motel van with me. Lucky for me and the airline they were still dedicated to saying "so long" to our sub-sonic wayfarers.
We didn't have that waiting problem today. Fran was pissed and we weren't taking any flight attendants to the Ann Arbor Inn with us, so we booked.
The FAA As A Force For Good?
As we settled into our faux leather seats for the always uneventful, almost-hour-long ride to the home of the University of Michigan, I began what to Fran was a surprising defense of the FAA. I'm sure Fran was astonished because during the past three days of flying together, she had heard me bitch, moan and otherwise complain, rant, grumble, carp and nitpick about the following subjects:
- Cab drivers who drive too slow
- Cab drivers who drive too fast
- Flight attendants with bad teeth
- Flight attendants with bad hygiene
- Flight attendants
- The company
- Managers of the company
- House cats
- My wife
- My neighbors wife
- Why did we have to slow down all the time? We were, after all, flying a jet
- The Republican party
- The Democrat party
- Almost everything else in the universe, to the point of physical pain for Fran
I think of the FAA the same way I think of health and building inspectors: You might respect the owner and cook at your local Taco Hut, but it is reassuring to know that another person has looked over the operation and declared it free of hepatitis A.
People sometimes don't like the building inspector when he or she comes into their job site and tells them that the construction work isn't up to code, but later residents of the building benefit from the fact that the place doesn't fall on their heads during the first mildly windy day.
The FAA also can fill the mythical role of a parent. If you don't want to go to the party at Johnny's house because you are uncomfortable about all of the drugs but don't want to seem un-cool, you could say that your parents forbade you to go, even though they had no idea that the party was going to take place. In a similar way, invoking the name of the FAA can get you out of doing a lot of stupid things without having to admit that you think they are stupid. Fly your RJ at flight level 410? Naw, we can't. We're too heavy to go up there and the FAA would really get mad.
Fran Begs To Differ
"I don't agree with that at all," said Fran. "My dad lost his medical last year due to a heart bypass operation and it is taking forever to get the medical certification stuff sorted out. He is way safer now as a pilot than he was when his arteries were all clogged up and yet he has to sit around waiting for some bureaucrat to decide his fate."
I know that the medical thing can be a real hassle. You're riding this van with a pilot who has been grounded twice for medical reasons. One time it was four months for snoring. Still, for every snoring pilot who has to sit on the beach for a while, they probably get some really dangerous situations out of the air.
Many people who medically have no place in front of an instrument panel are stopped by the system before they blow their life savings on training that'll do them no good. Occasionally, the FAA may be the only way to remove a pilot who shouldn't be flying and should be home, healing.
I think you'll also agree that considering what has happened during the past few years, the FAA probably needs to do more oversight of airlines, not less. With major maintenance going south of the border and being done by un-licensed and largely unsupervised mechanics, we need the FAA to step up and actually enforce the rules that are on the books.
Crew rest is another area that would be a disaster without the barely adequate protections provided by the FARs and the fuzz. Imagine a flying world without 30 in seven, eight in 24, and a thousand a year. The airlines are chomping at the bit to squeeze more hours out of their crews and their only limit is what the FAA allows them to do.
"I can't believe that I am listening to the same person who only yesterday during our Las Vegas-to-Seattle leg spent an entire hour calling the FAA a bunch of leeches," said Fran. "Aren't you the same captain who had more four-letter words to call those guys than are spoken during an episode of HBO's Tombstone?"
Yes, and I still believe all the things I said in my rant about the fuzz. The comparison between leeches and the FAA is valid -- they both live off of the host, do no discernable work of their own and aren't the most attractive thing to be in their universe -- but they do have valid functions.
Hospitals still maintain populations of leeches and even maggots to do vital, distasteful work around the institution that only they can do. To follow the comparison to its ultimate conclusion, we need both leeches and the FAA to do the necessary dirty work so we can enjoy a healthy flying lifestyle.
"So," said Fran, "The FAA is a bunch of maggoty leeches, but that is good because we need them to be that way."
"Well," she concluded, "I am now very glad that you didn't get a chance to talk much with the FAA guy we just had on board or the ride might have gone in a totally different direction."
Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.