Safety Shouldn’t Be Negotiable


Just about everyone wants to be good at his or her job and to do it well, I think. Certainly there are some external rewards generally associated with that in terms of advancement and pay increases but the fundamental sense of self-worth and satisfaction is enough to keep most people showing up and doing a decent job.

But there are some jobs in which doing a good job is the only option. The roles performed are so fundamental to public safety or security that to do anything else amounts to negligence and might even be criminal.

Not all of those jobs are especially exciting or dangerous although some definitely are. I think the role of the FAA certification inspector fits that definition. Unfortunately, it was not surprising, though no less alarming, to learn that FAA inspectors feel they are being pressured by their bosses to not do their jobs correctly.

In the wake of the revelations from the investigation into the certification process of the Boeing 737 MAX, the FAA was ordered to carry out a survey of safety division staff to see how they felt about the way things were going out in the field.

Only about 25 percent responded. I’d feel better about the resulting data if it was half or more but the sparse participation might be telling in itself. Regardless, those who did take the time painted a picture of a culture where inspectors are regularly under pressure to tiptoe around the commercial concerns of the businesses they’re trying to regulate.

At some level, that’s perfectly appropriate. Flying has risks and we, as a society, have accepted that. The inspector’s role is to ensure that mandated standards are met and maintained. In a technology-driven industry like aviation, that’s a constantly moving target that can be hard to keep in the middle of the sights.

That’s especially true in an industry where profit and loss are only a few points apart and competition is so intense. So, while inspectors must be mindful of the economic consequences of their actions and recommendations, the fundamental role is to ensure that the rules are followed. If everyone is on that page, the process should be smooth and consistent.

When the bosses start moving the goalposts and overtly suggesting that ways be found to make those rules less onerous on the companies— and maybe not all companies—they are essentially co-opting the inspectors into a fragmented process where safety is assigned a monetary value. That’s bad enough in itself because it makes safety a commodity that is open to negotiation.

Companies are in many ways like the inspectors themselves. They want to do a good job and certainly don’t want to be killing their customers and they rely on a set of standards that are applied evenly to guide their decisions. It’s a necessarily adversarial system and it depends on a stable set of rules to work.

If a company discovers that pressure applied at the political or senior management level can introduce some flexibility in the application of those rules, it’s only natural that their competitors will want the same consideration and that can quickly politicize a function that should not be influenced in that way.

Possibly the worst result is the effect on public respect and confidence. The FAA has suffered a massive hit to its credibility because of the 737 MAX debacle and there are legitimate concerns about its ability to effectively manage the certification process. The impact on public confidence in the MAX is evidence of that.

The trickle-down to business will be much more expensive than the nickels and dimes saved in tampering with the certification process because it will greatly complicate getting approvals for their products in other countries. FAA certification is no longer the gold standard and all other regulators will be taking a closer look at new products and planes before allowing them in their countries.

New FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a veteran military and airline pilot, is making the right noises about restoring the agency’s good name and I think he knows that involves more than saying the right words. In my opinion, the place to start is in the field, with the men and women on the front lines of aviation safety. They need assurances that in doing their jobs they are not viewed as some kind of greater problem that needs solving. They need to understand that management has their backs when they flag issues or say no to an influential industry member.

Effective regulation is in everyone’s interest and indeed it became a point of pride for the FAA as the world’s leading aviation regulator. The agency’s reputation can be rebuilt and that has to come from the top by making sure the rank and file have the authority and respect to do the good job they want to do.

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  1. If the administrator is that concerned about the reputation of the FAA, how about fixing domestic issues first before worrying about what EASA or other countries regulators think. How about getting the FAA’s own on the same page as their legal department. When an owner has to go to a mechanic in a neighboring district to get a well known and documented jump door mod approved because his/ her home district refuses to do field approvals, something is wrong. When a former employer complains about competition in other districts because that district has a much looser or older interpretation of time and duty rules, something is wrong. Taking it out on small operators because the FAA allowed a big company to get away with shortcuts and that came back to bite the FAA in the behind, something is wrong. Yes Mr. Dickson has a big job to do. Until more management changes are made at the top, nothing will change for those inspectors who feel pressured to look the other way. And the animosity that a lot of pilots and operators feel toward the FAA will not get any better.

  2. Having spent a long career in the the industry, I have run into too many managers who would beat any objectors into submission, whether company employees, customers or suppliers. At times it was very lonely saying no and impacting the sacrosanct schedule. Sure didn’t help the career to be labeled technically competent but not a team player for doing my job.
    I have dealt with government customers and some are real team players trying to do the right thing. As you go up the chain of command, career and standing become primary concerns.

  3. Huge difference between leadership and management. At no point in time should safety be ahead of relationships. At no point in time should good leaders ever punish or hold hostage any employee doing the right thing for the right reasons. As a leader/manager it was instilled in me to trust but verify.

  4. Unfortunately, I believe the problem is much bigger than the FAA. I seems as though US society as a whole is getting to the point where some feel the rules only apply to everyone else, and if you have money and influence, you can be treated differently. I’m not sure if Mr. Dickson can do a whole lot until the federal government as a whole decides that rules are rules and they must be followed as they are written, regardless of who or what they’re being applied to. I think once everyone is back on a level playing field, it will actually be easier to then change rules that are punitive just to be punitive (or because “that’s how it’s always been”).

  5. Let me comment from the standpoint of an A&P trying to do his job with an FAA inspection going on. When the FAA dropped in to the commuter airline maintenance center where I worked, we could never get everything done. We had to stop and answer questions instead of doing our scheduled work. I will give an example: I was pulling up floor panels in an aircraft in order to complete a scheduled inspection on wiring and control cables. The FAA inspector popped in and asked this question; What gives you the authority to pull up these panels? So, I had to stop what I was doing and try to decipher what this guy was after. I answered his question in a number of ways that citied our approved maintenance program and FAA Part 135. Not good enough. He kept probing and when I did not give him the answer he was looking for, he wrote it up. There, how’s that for good safety inspection? Usually, these intrusions, were completed in the middle of the night shift around midnite and lasted until 2-3 am. Then, we had to work additional time past our 10 hour shift to properly inspect and service the aircraft to get them into shape for the day’s operations. That was my experience with FAA inspectors and it happened more than once. If you detect animosity here, you are correct. I did have (and still have to a certain extent) that attitude regrading FAA checks and inspections. I know that my experience is only mine and hopefully not typical of others.

  6. Rules are Rules, yes. But Compliance (too?) often is in the eye of the enforcer. If Safety truly is your objective, then AMOC (Alternative Method of Compliance) can be a rational counterpart to “we’ve always done it this way.”

    Sometimes mere compliance will bite you in the ass – look no further than the MCAS debacle. Boeing complied with a Rule (of questionable value). The FAA approved its compliance. Four foreign-national pilots (with questionable skills) failed to properly handle a “runaway” trim event. People died. Sometimes, allegedly smart people to fail to see the forest of Safety, for the trees of Compliance.

    This opinion is worth what you paid for it. I’m a believer in Management by Objective. Compliance id NOT a synonym for safety.

  7. 20+ years ago I was taking a business flight from DCA. My seatmate discovered we had a common background in aviation, and he told me this story: Back in the dawning of the jet airliner era, Boeing and Douglas were working to get their respective new models certified. FAA came up with a revised stall characteristic requirement for the wing section next to the fuselage. Douglas spent a great deal of time and effort to redesign the DC-8’s wing section. Boeing’s approach was to lobby the FAA until they dropped the requirement. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this story, it sounds like things haven’t changed a lot since then.

  8. Well-written editorial, Russ. However, anecdotes about venal/incompetent FAA inspectors notwithstanding, I feel your recommendation (assurance of FAA management backing) is prescribing aspirin for a gut-shot. Besides, the 737MAX debacle was not so much an issue of incompetent/spineless/co-opted inspectors as a series of cascading judgement calls that ultimately lead to disaster. From a systems standpoint, it was just as unlikely as the fact that we are still flying B-52’s.

    How is the situation at the FAA any different from that at many other Federal agencies these days? I have no doubt that the FAA has the best inspectors that it can afford. Giving them yet another new-boss bromide that “I’ll have your back”, won’t change a thing.

    When the highest level of management is proudly hell-bent on “saving” money by cutting the budgets of the FAA, EPA, FDA, USPS, et al. only a naif would be surprised that corners are cut, experienced staff depart, crucial operations are compromised or skipped altogether, and bad things ultimately happen. How do the safety inspection issues you address differ from having no standard metrics from the DHHS for reporting COVID-19 infections, delays in mail delivery, and increasingly severe climatic/weather events? It’s not just the flying public but the entire country that is left wondering, “Where are we, and how did we get in this hand-basket?”

    In aviation, no less than everywhere else, you get what you pay for.

    • Exactly. The issue goes above and beyond the FAA.

      The ironic thing is that many people view European regulations as unnecessarily beauracratic, but ICAO is actually starting to become less beauracratic than the FAA. This is bad news for the FAA and the US as an aviation leader, but also good news in that if we as a country decide to clean up shop, we can become leaders again.

  9. The problem is far more complicated than reassuring field personnel that they are doing the right thing. The agency culture doesn’t appreciate or understand the users they are tasked to regulate. The problems this causes are many:
    – First and foremost the FAA becomes the enabler of bad behavior. Instead of focusing on risk and safety they are focused on extremely precise compliance. That encourages applicants to view compliance as a cost and not to view safety as an opportunity.
    – Their approach generates a risk adverse culture where change can ruin a career but forcing an applicant to “overly” or very precise compliance is never challenged.
    – It is unreasonable for any entity to think they can inspect compliance (or quality) into the system. We have to generate a system that results is safe products (therefore compliant)
    – It causes an antagonistic relationship between the users and the regulators (witness the comments to this opinion).
    I could go on but I fear recent events have shown that our FAA is no longer the international leader it once was and I appreciate your positive perspective on the current Administrator but I do not foresee him making this big a cultural change to an entrenched workforce that lacks vision.

  10. Russ, I think you’re wrong on two basic points: (1) safety must be negotiable for two reasons: (a) The regulator and the regulated party share a common interest in safety but the regulated party has other legitimate interests that the regulator does not share, such as the market viability of the product, return on investment, the ability to hire and retain the best talent, and so on. Negotiation is necessary to reconcile these interests in a way that balances them appropriately. (b) The regulator is not always right. Negotiation is necessary to find the best solution. (2) The study of FAA inspector attitudes that underlies your editorial is not relevant. I can think of less useful information than how an inspector FEELS about their job. Because regulators and regulated parties do not share a complete identity of interests, both parties will experience stress dealing with one another as they seek to balance their legitimate but not identical interests. Bosses and subordinates typically experience stress in their relationship for similar reasons. Stress comes with the territory. An inspector who prefers less stress ought to change jobs, and no legislative effort ought be expended to address this entirely imaginary “problem.” I’ll bet some portion of the 75% of FAA inspectors who failed to respond to the survey understand this and recognized the survey was a waste of time. (Some portion may have declined to participate out of fear of reprisal; THAT would be worth following up.) This study is a smoke screen, a red herring, a bit of political sleight-of-hand to distract the public while politicians play tricks. FEELINGS are not sound bases for public policy. Sending out a survey about feelings and counting responses results in a number but that number does not transform feelings into data.

  11. Excellent comments. However, we are preaching to the choir. Nothing wrong with that. These comments are encouraging in that there are still people who are thinking rationally vs the more common reactionary response based on feelings. I agree with Joe C’s well said statement that encompasses more than just the FAA and the basis for the original article.

    ” This study is a smoke screen, a red herring, a bit of political sleight-of-hand to distract the public while politicians play tricks. FEELINGS are not sound bases for public policy. Sending out a survey about feelings and counting responses results in a number but that number does not transform feelings into data.”

    FEELINGS are NOT sound basis for public policy. However, it is the core of our new American normal. Our ability ( and latent desire) to have our opinions heard through modern technology not only allows for a numerical total number of feelings, but adds the opportunity for instant reprisal if someone does not like those numbers. It is the worse possible combination of opinion and reprisal to form public policy, safety or otherwise. And we wonder why why so much of our lives are wrapped up in politics.

    MAX, MCAS, Covid-19 and the combined American general chaotic response has been based on feelings, politics, confusion, greed, complacency, ignorance__________fill in the blanks with your choice of words…but least of all, accurate data. We are being conditioned for what to think, rather than performing the now, the almost lost art of… how to think. We are becoming a society of reactionaries, where survival of the fittest motivated by feelings seems to be the dominant MO for so much public policy. There is no safety in an airplane or society when feelings are solicited, collated, and numerically totaled and substituted for accurate, truthful data, driving public policy.

  12. Decrying the concept of negotiable safety is the same idea expressed in the oft-heard “cost cannot be a factor where safety is concerned”. In turn, that is a variation on the “not a dime should be spent on (defense, infrastructure, whatever) while (a single child in the world goes to bed hungry, there remains poverty in the world, whatever).

    And don’t get me started on handling COVID-19.

  13. For at least the last 10 years the only thing that mattered at Boeing was that this quarters share price had to be higher than last quarter. Everything, safety, product excellence, the well being of the work force, the true long term health of the company was subservient to that imperative.

    This fact incentivezed everything that ultimately led to the MAX fiasco. Now the call is for more government oversight, so spending more of the tax payers money because Boeing executives could only think of their quarterly bonuses not actually doing their job to ensure that Boeing ultimately had structures and systems in place to make safe airplanes in an efficient and profitable manner.

    So once again we have an example of the business system that capitalizes profits but socializes loses, just like the airlines who were borrowing money to buy back their own stock to juice the C suite bonuses but then had no cash margin when the industry tanked and, big surprise, needed a taxpayer sponsored bailout.

    No amount of government oversight is going to help if the industry leaders don’t understand that THEY are the ones responsible for making safe airlines

  14. What????? You mean Free Marketing doesn’t fix everything? Ayn Rand is fallible????? Greed is NOT GOOD??? Say it ain’t so,Joe.
    What about the DC-10? At A&P school in the seventies we called it the Death Craft Ten.

  15. We had an airliner that I would have perceived as having true ‘American’ values, the L-1011. But then ‘return on capital’ and other Wall St mumbo jumbo, yes, you need profit, but it became more of a chorus of we’re not making money because we are not stuffing our pockets enough.
    Whatever bad happens, we unleash marketing and legal firemen Dewey, Cheatam and Howe( the Service Pros of corporate disasters), a basket of non-disclosure agreements, provide testimony in front of committees who’s pockets we’ve stuffed, get fined a pittance, which we’ll dump on the tax payers and get at worse a suspended sentence and a promise to pass some castrated .

  16. Gentle reminder: You can pay a bad designer a million dollars per year – s/he still will produce bad designs.
    C-suite compensation won’t improve (or worsen) their designs, either.
    In my experience, it usually requires Engineering Management to screw up product design.

  17. I rarely disagree with an AvWeb Editorial–but I do with this one.

    The FAA was mocked and scorned for decades, with their “I’m from the FAA and here to help” mantra–the butt of jokes throughout the industry. Their over-regulation not only eliminated entire industries (single engine and light twin charters) but the industries that served them (light twin manufacturers). It took a couple of decades for the FAA to realize that by killing the industry it purports to regulate, that they were working themselves out of a job. You don’t need to hire FAA regulators if they have no industry to regulate.

    The FAA has done a good job (did I just SAY that????) lately of relaxing some of their hidebound rules. BasicMed, LSAs, avionic installations by mechanics, and innovative products like UAvionics, owner-assisted factory completion of homebuilts are examples of a more “results oriented” FAA. (though some of these actions were spurred by Congressional over-ride action, rather than within the FAA). The fact that the GA accident record has continued to improve puts paid the lie that “more enforcement equals more safety.” As the Brits used to say, “our government considers it a risk every time they allow an airplane to take to the air.” There are rumblings of other possible actions on aircraft certification.

    It’s ABOUT TIME that we have PRACTICAL regulation, rather than bureaucratic “this is the way we’ve always done it” and “more regulation makes things safer”. Is it any wonder that General Aviation hasn’t been able to adopt the modern techniques of the auto industry? We’re still dealing with 1930s technology!

    I agree with the comments from Leo L, Yars, Gary B, John G, Joe C, and the OTHER Jim H.

  18. Are you talking about the same institution that still insists we equip our aircraft with ‘certified’ vacuum pumps ? The FAAs main focus is maintaining riding its own powertrip as long as ot can. Safety isn’t in its top 3 driving factors. Sure, its proved a handy excuse this past year, but otherwise the FAA is very happy to enforce “because thats how we did it way back when” over a more demanding safety driven approach.