The Pilot's Lounge #103: The FAA As Customer -- Good Business?

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The Pilot's Lounge

A friend of mine, Hal Shevers, stopped in at the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport the other day. Hal seemed a little agitated, which was not unusual because he runs various general aviation businesses, including Sporty's Pilot Shop, and has done so for many years. With the challenges facing general aviation business people, I'm surprised when I see one who isn't agitated. One of Hal's businesses is a full-service FBO, Eastern Cincinnati Aviation. Running an FBO is about as unforgiving as it gets in aviation: You have a lousy rate of return, you rent airplanes to pilots who are constantly complaining about the cost and you have to deal with local airport politics, which can be enough to turn the most pious Christian into a polytheist.

Hal didn't want to talk in the Lounge, so we headed for a nearby restaurant. There, he began to tell me about an aircraft rental situation of a type he faces with some regularity, but this one had blown up and he couldn't seem to get it resolved.

Eastern Cincinnati Aviation rents airplanes to the FAA. Hal wants to remain on good terms with the local FAA office, the FSDO. He runs a clean shop. He gets inspected from time to time and has never had any problems with violations of the FARs. His airplanes are well maintained (I've seen them) and so the rental rates are not the lowest in the area. From time to time the FSDO inspectors find that there is enough money in their extremely tight budget to do some proficiency flying. They like the condition of Hal's airplanes so they, as FAA employees, on official FAA business, rent from his FBO.

Good Idea or Bad Idea?

On the surface, it sounds like a very good thing to have FAA employees renting your airplanes. They pay by credit card, they usually don't take the airplanes for several days at a time -- putting only an hour or so on them each day -- and they usually don't leave dirty diapers and wads of gum under the seats. Unfortunately, having represented a number of FBOs over the years, I am aware that there is a definite dark side to renting to the FAA, and I rapidly thought about that dark side while I waited for Hal to tell me what had him worked up. With the huge budget deficits faced by the federal government, the FAA's budget has been stretched more and more tightly each year. One of the places deep cuts have been made is for proficiency flying for inspectors. There is nowhere near enough money for inspectors to maintain a reasonable level of currency.

A very weird institutional mindset makes this problem worse by several magnitudes: Way too many FSDOs have either a formal or informal policy of discouraging inspectors from flying on their own time, either renting with their own money or owning their own airplanes. Potential new-hire inspectors who own airplanes have been told that their application is graded down because of their airplane ownership. The excuse is usually that they will get too friendly with the local pilot community and won't be able to enforce regulations. Yes, I know that's incredibly stupid, but it's reality. It also means that inspectors are much less likely to be current and competent as pilots and those very same inspectors are tasked with understanding what is involved in flying an airplane and passing judgment on pilots who are current and flying in the real world.

So Hal, with his good-quality FBO and flight school, rents airplanes to FAA inspectors who may or may not have had much real-world flying experience prior to joining the FAA. And since joining, they fly irregularly. Hal also knows that inspectors absorb aviation safety information with their breakfast as a matter of course in the job with the FAA, so most have become very cautious and conscientious pilots. And, because of budget considerations and lack of IFR currency, they generally only rent in good VFR weather. In fact, other than the fact that they spend so much time involving themselves with aviation safety, they are like a lot of Hal's VFR renters, and probably a little better than average. Eastern Cincinnati Aviation also has a policy that any renter who hasn't flown for more than 30 days cannot be pilot-in-command (and therefore must make a flight with an instructor), and this policy often has to be invoked for FAA inspectors.

I know, as do those who have worked with the FAA, that FAA inspectors are human, and therefore there is a certain proportion -- small, thank goodness -- who have egos the size of Mt. Rushmore and are convinced that they should be the fifth face thereon. Thus, there are a few inspectors out there who are not only not current, but are not competent and whose egos write checks their skills cannot cash. For the average renter, Hal can refuse to rent and get away with it. With the FAA, Hal and the owners of other FBOs tread a fine political line should they refuse to rent to a particular FAA inspector. So Hal and the other FBO owners -- recognizing that the rentals will usually be in good VFR weather -- suck it up, smile gamely and hand over the keys to the rental airplanes.

Hard Landing ... Really Hard Landing

Once we had ordered dinner, Hal went into the details of a rental event that happened more than a year ago. His FBO rented one of its airplanes, a Piper Aztec, to one of those inspectors who didn't fly regularly and had a reputation in the area for having a massive ego and not-so-massive skills and judgment. (As I investigated this event, others confirmed the reputation.) In fact, just prior to the flight, the inspector made a pronouncement to all in earshot about being aware of "Hal's 30-day rule" and that -- although the inspector had not flown within 30 days and was flying with an instructor provided by the FBO -- the FAA inspector was PIC should there be any emergency.

Well, it was kind-of a gusty day and the inspector managed to slam one of the propellers of the Aztec into the runway on landing. Believe it or not, the gear was down. Think for a minute what sort of control inputs had to have been involved to get the tail up high enough and one wing down low enough to have a propeller come into contact with the runway. Full contact. I used to own an Aztec and just thinking about that kind of attitude on the ground gives me the willies. If that doesn't call a pilot's competence to hold a rating into question, I'm not sure what more it takes.

If one of us mere mortals got a twin so out of control as to get a prop strike on a routine landing, the FAA would be down our throats, possibly seeking to yank our pilot certificates. And, I would expect, they would be calling our competence into question. You know what? They'd be right. Absolutely right. One shouldn't stuff the control wheel far enough forward and to one side on landing in a tricycle-gear twin to cause a prop to hit the runway. Can you imagine the picture out of the windshield of that airplane when it was pitched down enough that it became a tripod of nose gear, one main gear and propeller? It's frightening to contemplate.

For Hal, the fun was only beginning. The blades on that prop had to be replaced and the hub overhauled. The affected engine had to be torn down because of the prop strike. The airplane, previously generating rental income for the FBO, was parked for several weeks. Eastern Cincinnati Aviation was out a fairly substantial amount of money.

Time to Collect

Hal, as he would with any renter who damaged one of the FBO's airplanes, asked the FAA to pay for the repairs and down time. The local FSDO cooperated completely. I'll repeat that: The local FSDO did all it could to resolve this unpleasantness; Hal makes it clear that the problems occurred at levels well above the FSDO and also with another department of the government. The FAA, because it self-insures, had its attorneys speak with an attorney for Hal's FBO. Eventually they came to an agreement on the amount due Eastern Cincinnati Aviation. Now, in my experience with insurance companies, once the amount to be paid is agreed upon, payment generally takes place in a couple of weeks. (I once had to wait six weeks for a check for a client, and the insurance company apologized for an internal error that had delayed things that long.) For Hal, it took more than a year for the FAA to pay the money it agreed to pay. I will say that the FAA attorney assigned to this matter did all he could. I've been shown one of the emails; the hang up seemed to be with the Treasury Department. For his part, the FAA attorney apologized to Hal's company for the delay and has been very professional.

As things dragged on month after month, even though the FAA had agreed to pay a specific sum of money, Hal decided that this delay was way, way too long. He decided to do what an FBO would do if any other renter had torn up one of his company's airplanes: seek payment directly from the pilot. That usually causes the pilot to urge the insurance company to get with it and pay the bill because, after all, the pilot is personally on the hook for the damages. So Hal wrote a letter asking that the pilot pay up. In return he got a letter from the FAA attorney informing him (correctly) that, under the law, the FAA inspector cannot be held personally liable for jamming a propeller into the concrete.

Eastern Cincinnati Aviation did eventually get paid; however, the company was jerked around for the better part of a year on an agreed-upon sum of money. In the real world, Hal's FBO would be entitled to interest on that debt. But when Hal mentioned to the FAA that not only was his company out the money, it was also out the time value of the money -- i.e., interest - he was told, politely, to take a hike. The FAA government would keep the interest on the money, thank you very much.

Had this been a private renter whose insurer had agreed to pay and then didn't, Eastern Cincinnati Aviation could have sued the individual and insurer and probably collected interest. When it is an FAA employee who errs, Eastern's rights when it comes to recovery are far more limited.

Remedial Training for the FAA

There is one other aspect of this matter that troubles me: Does an FAA inspector who tears up an airplane have to play by the same rules as we pilots in the real world? Did this inspector face potential loss of his or her certificate through a violation action or, at the very least, remedial training or a 709 ride?

Over the years I've represented a lot of pilots who have had "fender bender" incidents in airplanes. Often the FAA inspector charged with investigating will have the pilot come into the FSDO and take a 709 ride to evaluate his or her competency as a pilot. Before any pilot goes in for that checkride, almost all will pay for some dual instruction to make sure the 709 ride will go OK ... to make sure there aren't any bad habits. I've met and counseled a lot of pilots who have had to take 709 rides and who spent their own money to get ready and to rent airplanes for the ride. All of them passed.

The 709 ride, in my opinion, is a very good thing. When pilots have had something go wrong it's a good idea that the FAA wants to make sure they are competent, that they are not a hazard to aviation. Because, every once in a while, the 709 ride turns up a pilot who should not be flying ... someone who, due to age or infirmity, has lost that certain something that means they should no longer act as pilot in command. I'm all for 709 rides.

However, try as I might, I cannot find out if the pilot who tore up Hal's airplane had to take a 709 ride. I don't even know if the FAA applies its regulations regarding 709 rides to its employees. (I suspect I'll learn after this column comes out.) Did this inspector have to go out and spend his or her own money to take some dual in another twin and then rent one (at personal expense) to take a 709 ride? If so, that's great. That's the idea of keeping aviation safe, applied equitably among pilots. FAA employees should have to bear the responsibilities borne by we who are not employees of the FAA. If the inspector did not have to spend the money and take a 709 ride, why not? This is not an employment issue where civil service rules may protect an employee; its a matter of competence to hold a pilot certificate, so the standards for all pilots, when it comes to being re-examined, should be identical. There are a lot of professional pilots who have scraped airplanes in the course of their employment and who had to take 709 rides. Their employers didn't pay the freight for the aircraft rental and dual involved in the process. So please, FAA, let us know if your inspectors who tear up other people's airplanes are held to the same standard as the rest of us.

All the Benefits; No Responsibility

It's bad enough that Hal's company didn't get paid for a year for the loss it incurred because an inspector found a way to get a prop strike on landing in a twin. But if the inspector did not have to spend some personal money and demonstrate that he or she isn't a menace to aviation safety, then that's a double standard that we should not have to tolerate.

And a message to Congress: There are a heck of a lot of good FAA inspectors doing their level best in what is often a thankless job, and you are doing them -- and us in the aviation community -- a horrible disservice by not providing them with enough money to fly enough to maintain competency. They need to be reminded just how tough it can be to fly an airplane so they can then judge our ability in an objective, accurate fashion.

To FSDOs that have policies that discourage inspectors from flying on their own time and nickels: Drop those policies. They're stupid and counterproductive. Inspectors should be encouraged to be out in the general aviation community, to be active pilots, not some sort of odd-aloof, out-of-touch creatures, so that they can transmit the idea that when we pilots err, we will be judged by pilots who actually are flying regularly and familiar with the real world.

And to FBOs and flight schools who rent to the FAA in these times of tight budgets: Be very, very careful.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.