Debate: a kinder, gentler FAA?

FAA Safety Briefing
A real change, or just a head fake?

The FAA has a reputation for being punitive and unequal in its enforcement, more interested in paperwork and police work than in promoting real safety. If you believe some recent announcements, though, that attitude may be changing. Administrator Michael Huerta has spent the last few months promoting a new “Compliance Philosophy Order,” which promises to change the way his agency deals with pilots.

As Director of Flight Standards John Duncan explains in a recent issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, “Compliance means following the rules, but it also means going beyond the rules by taking proactive measures to find problems and fix them to manage or mitigate the risk they create in the system.”

He divides pilots into two main categories: those who want to be safe, and those who knowingly violate the rules:

We know that pilots don’t walk out to the airplane trying to think of ways to break the rules; they intend to comply and they make efforts to do just that… It’s not okay to do nothing when these errors occur, because they can have serious safety consequence in our highly complex airspace. But the correct response to inadvertent errors is not blame, which looks backward and focuses on punishment for what’s already happened. Rather, we seek accountability, which takes responsibility and looks forward.

Enforcement actions aren’t going away, and the FAA doesn’t want pilots to think they’re going soft, but different mistakes call for different reactions:

Compliance Philosophy means that in the case of pilots who are willing and able to comply, and who are cooperative in taking the steps necessary to get back to compliance, the best way to meet our safety goal is to use tools like training, education, or better procedures. The enforcement tool is for cases involving someone who is unwilling or unable to comply.

On the surface, this sounds like a positive change, with federal regulators focusing on the goal (improved safety) instead of the process. It also suggests a slightly less adversarial approach, one that recognizes the good intentions of most pilots. This could lead to fewer suspended licenses for minor, innocent mistakes. It might even improve safety – especially if it creates an atmosphere where pilots and mechanics feel comfortable self-reporting mistakes.

Not all pilots will be put at ease by such talk, though. To many, this new approach is just a new coat of paint for the policies and procedures the FAA has always used. Anyone who thinks they’re going to be less punitive is naive.

What do you think? Is the new FAA focus on compliance a step in the right direction? Or is it just a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Add your comment below.

13 Comments

  • Actually, I’d much rather see tough enforcement actions being taken – by the US Congress against the FAA … for flagrantly refusing to comply with the Part 23 reform process per Federal law that was supposed to have been issued by last year.

  • There is an element of criminal psychiatry at the FAA. This group’s front is the ASAM. Soviet Era psychiatry is no way to deal with whistleblowers.

    Suggest the FAA abandon and outsource all pilot mental health to qualified practitioners without a financial agenda.

  • While I welcome the possibility, I remain extremely skeptical. They (FAA) have been adversarial for many years, and that kind of attitude can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change. I will believe it when I see proof. It is my belief that pilots who deliberately violate regulations are in the extreme minority. The real problem, as I see it, is the mountainous volume of regulations that we must adhere to, complicated by such monsters as pop-up TFRs (essentially unheard-of prior to 9/11 and WAY too numerous now).

    • Very true. FAA is all rules but little action. I think we are overregulated. Flying is all about skills and enjoyment not to have fear of violating something that logically we are trained for not. TFR’s are restrictions that lack of value. When something go to happened it does. I take TFR’s like a restraining order. It does not matter you have it, you still a victim, it is only a paper not a protection. Same it goes with the rules.

  • I don’t believe it for a second. With top FAA management being lawyers, one should not be surprised if legal mumbo jumbo is the output. The reality is that I am forced out of well equipped and safe aircraft I have been flying most of my life into small older and less safe aircraft because they are the only ones I can afford. Good job FAA. Keep up the good work and soon there will not be a GA for them to regulate.

    Please don’t invite me to another safety seminar in which you suggest that the only good and legal preflight should only take three days to complete!

  • Draconian, punitive and Soviet Era unyielding.

    Most pilots truly want to be safe and truly try to comply but inadvertently stray from the mountains of bureaucratic babble-speak just a bit and the FAA will use a sledge hammer to kill a fly!

    I answer none of those surveys from the FAA and wouldn’t tell them anything unless lawfully required – and then only with a lawyer. Pilots want to be safe and want the airspace to be safe but the FAA is not ally. I do not practice this myself but many, many pilots forebear flight following for fear of the FAA. They are not a pilot’s friend but rather an acerbic bureaucratic power that just happens to be applied to aviation which is adept at taking the most mundane of matter and turning it into an ordeal.

    Remember their motto, “We’re the FAA – we’re not happy until you’re not happy!”

    • You’re conflating the enforcers with the controllers at FAA. The guys and gals who work the Centers and the towers aren’t enforcers … they’re there to keep aircraft from running into each other, and occasionally they are called on to assist us pilots in dealing with emergencies or even less-than-emergencies.

      I use VFR flight following all the time and for many years, and I have never had a controller treat me with anything but professionalism. A couple of times they’ve also assisted me when I needed help in finding an airport when the weather was closing in around or below me. It was my fault that I was where I shouldn’t have been, but the controllers didn’t scold or lecture me, they just helped me find a VMC airport and then made sure that I was safe before we signed off on the radio.

      Sure, there are faceless bureaucrats populating the machinery of the bureaucracy who have no people skills and enjoy abusing their powers to punish people, or to refuse to help people who just want to fly, just like so many others in government tend to do.

      It’s best to make the distinction between the controllers and the bureaucrats.

  • Old Sicilian saying “I hear what you said but I see what you do!
    Reagan said , trust but verify! Honestly there some very good people at FAA but there and there some really bad people too! Time will tell

  • I think the pilots have spoken. It’s clear the FAA is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Keep your guard up. The are NOT here to help you.

    Same with what has happened with local and county police… they’ve turned from “we’re here to help” to “we’re here to punish you”… and have quotas for punishing. I’d bet the FAA has similar, anyone know?

  • My experience with the FAA has not been good. In 2013 I had an incident (aborted my takeoff) on a hot day on a short runway with trees and hill at the end. I received a eerie letter stating that I would have to be reviewed. My reward for aborting the take off and crashing the plane was to have my license “voluntarily” surrendered. The FAA person was condesending, sarcastic etc. It appears these types are retired airline pilots wanting to pick up extra money. I guess its an ego trip for them to beat up on GA pilots….
    I did start all over and took the ground school course and took the flying test. Have a brand new private pilot license! Just remember the story of the frog and the scorpion! Don’t give up!

  • I’m a little surprised by the amount of negativity toward the fuzz. I have been aviateing for 48 years, 23,000+ hours. Started civilian then USAF the airline then retired to crop dusting. As an airline pilot fo 31 years I have had them show up in the cock pit several times each year. Once a year for a specific check of me other times just random. Over all they are just people, nothing more, nothing less. Most are engaging and friendly a few very few are A holes. Just like pilots and people. One might wonder about part 137 flying, crop dusting. They are pretty much hands off, i.e. If you are crazy enough to do it they don’t get too involved. One thing I will agree is they are generally more interested in crossing t’s and dotting i’s than I am. Many of them want to pass on a “tip” on how to do something, don’t take it personal, they just want to feel needed. STAY SAFE, HAVE FUN, MAKE MONEY, in that order

    • Dan,
      I’m surprised you had such good luck. I’ve got about the same experience with 25K hours, 121, 135 and GA. While there sure are some good ones, there’s a LOT of bad ones, and you never know when you’ll get a bad one. (just read the comments here!)

      A lot of them have big egos and want to show their power, retired airline or not (I have all of them). Yes, they are interested in the crossing T’s and dotting I’s, but few of them care anything at all about safety, even the airline examiners. I’ve had them fall asleep on the jump seat and ask why we didn’t brief the approach, look for petty things to make an issue of, forget to bring their credentials or show up late and want to delay a flight (of course, the last two reasons I’d deny they boarding).

      Overall, my experience shows that they have WAY too many bad ones. Caution be advised.

  • I think this might be the initiative that an acquaintance of mine in the FAA is involved with. He is a classmate from the Air Force Academy, military and airline experience, and is a supporter of the airline ASAP program (similar to the civilian NASA Safety Reporting System). These programs have the philosophy that safety is much better served with the truth about why accidents occur than by punishing the reporters or violators. I, too, have 45 years of observing the FAA be more concerned with paperwork and punishment than actual fixing of problems, but I feel that they are actually putting resources to work to fix that mode, or at least modify it. I am hopeful but cautious, and agree with the observation that the FAA is made of people with faults, egos, and power, with a mandate to “enforce rules”. But change comes from the top down, and I am anxious to see if this change will be meaningful, and will stick.

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