Another FAA Safety Program

I’ve always alleged that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is more concerned with the appearances of being a safety oriented organization than actually acting like one.

The FAA tends to talk a good game when it comes to safety but then often fails to take action when it comes to improving safety within aviation and/or the air traffic system.

It’s also a fact that the FAA can be outright reckless when it comes to safety issues, as demonstrated by their willingness to test their En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) software on the flying public while it was still ridden with bugs; well before it was suited for the task, apparently simply assuming the air traffic controllers using it would be able to deal with any software problems that arose and still keep the aircraft safely separated.

Only after word of how poorly the ERAM software was performing got out did the FAA decide to stop testing it on live traffic.  Now months later after continued development the software apparently still isn’t ready for use on live traffic.

I wrote some time ago how the FAA is really only motivated to address safety issues when they hit the headlines.

A recent example of that approach came last month when the news reported that the FAA hadn’t yet required the airlines to fix their cockpit windshield heaters even though the FAA had known for years that the heaters could start fires.

Not surprisingly, within a couple of weeks of the story appearing, the FAA finally took action, issuing an order to the airlines requiring they fix the problem.

It’s proof positive that the FAA tends to ignore safety issues until they become front page news.

So it’s curious that the FAA keeps inventing new safety reporting programs when they’ve demonstrated they’re not interested in being proactive when it comes to fixing safety related problems.

After years of attacking controllers for making mistakes, the FAA finally came up with a non-punitive safety reporting system in its Air Traffic Safety Program (ATSAP).

The ATSAP program is fantastic in that it finally gives controllers immunity from disciplinary action if they report safety related problems after years of being threatened or disciplined by FAA management for errors.  But it has also in large part bought the controller workforces’ silence when it comes to safety issues and operational errors.

It’s pretty clear that a vast number of the ATSAP reports are just being filed away and ignored by the FAA.  That’s because the program doesn’t have the authority to mandate any changes, and as the FAA routinely ignores outside safety recommendations (like those from the National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB), it’s sure not going to respond in any meaningful way to any internal safety program.

As long as those reports are kept internal to the FAA and out of the news, they’re fine with ignoring them.

Maybe that’s why the FAA creates their internal safety reporting systems:  to ensure those problems are kept internal and out of public view…

So it’s notable that on July 1st, we were briefed via a Memorandum that the FAA, cooperatively with the FAA air traffic controllers’ union (NATCA), and PASS (the union representing FAA technicians, inspectors, and other safety support staff) were introducing another safety reporting program called the “Partnership for Safety”.

According to the memo, the program:

…seeks to identify safety issues before an incident or accident occurs.  The Partnership for Safety program actively seeks your input on what problems or trends exist today in our air traffic control system that need to be fixed.  We are committed to working together to address these issues, and will spend the time, resources and energy to keep safety first.

But the FAA already has a relatively new safety reporting system in ATSAP.  Here’s what it says on the ATSAP website about the program:

The intent is to identify and report all events that may or did lead to a breakdown in safety, or increase risk to our operation. If we want to mitigate all safety risks, we need to identify and study the thousands of unreported events that may reveal the one critical safety event that could result in disaster.

The newest Partnership for Safety program appears to mirror the ATSAP program, and although only air traffic controllers have an associated Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the FAA that offers controllers immunity for reporting errors through ATSAP, the program is available to all FAA employees.

So why would the FAA spend the time and money to create another program that does what ATSAP is already supposed to be doing?

If employees have safety concerns, should they file reports under ATSAP, under the Partnership for Safety program, or both?

The new program is either an implicit admission that the FAA’s current safety reporting program (ATSAP) doesn’t really work, or is just more smoke and mirrors to make its employees and the general public think that the FAA is committed to safety (if one safety reporting program is good, than two is better!), when what they’re really committed to is simply business as usual.

Regardless of what the safety reporting system is, until the FAA has a safety program that legally binds them to correct safety related problems that are reported to them it will continue to turn a blind eye to them (or at least until those problems hit the headlines…).

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