By: Barbara Lichman, Ph.D.
October 12, 2015
In a somewhat ambiguous announcement, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), Michael Huerta, announced a “new” safety philosophy for the FAA. Articulated in a speech last week to the Flight Safety Foundation in Washington, D.C., that “new” philosophy purportedly “challenges the status quo” by focusing on prevention, i.e., “finding problems in the national airspace system before they result in an incident or accident.” Where problems do occur, the FAA foresees “using tools like training or documented improvements to procedures to ensure compliance.”
Those would be noble goals if the public were not under the current impression that the FAA’s primary mandate of promoting safety of air transportation were not already being carried out with a primary emphasis on prevention. What is, perhaps, more surprising is that the “new” philosophy is meant not merely to prevent accidents, but also to “prevent” operators (read “airlines”) from “hiding inadvertent mistakes because they are afraid of punishment.”
The “new” policy is purportedly derived from 10 years of contemplation by the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (“CAST”), and is aimed at an allegedly “new” focus on preemption, i.e., finding a problem, fixing a problem, and making sure it stays fixed. For those citizens who assume that FAA was already using “critical thinking to work smarter and more efficiently to get to the bottom of safety problems,” the announcement was somewhat troubling. The FAA never misses an opportunity to justify airspace changes over established communities on the grounds of its primary responsibility for promoting safety in the national airspace system. With this announcement, FAA has admitted that it has not, in fact, engaged in forethought on safety issues, but has, instead, focused on “intentional reckless behavior, inappropriate risk taking, repeated failures, falsification, failure to fulfill commitments, or deviation from regulatory standards.” Presumably, the FAA will now focus on fulfilling its full statutory mission of anticipating safety problems as well as belatedly punishing them.