AIN Blog: The Nurturing FAA: What's in a Word?

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John Allen, FAA Flight Standards Service Director
The FAA's John Allen said he is working to change the agency's enforcement policy to encourage inspectors to work out minor issues rather than jump immediately to enforcement actions.
April 24, 2012 - 7:17am

The New York City Department of Education has sent a list of words to companies bidding to revamp the city’s standardized tests. The words are considered to be inappropriate and make some people uncomfortable. Among them: dinosaur, pepperoni and dancing. Seriously.

Dinosaur: not everyone accepts the theory of evolution. Pepperoni: junk food. Dancing: well, anyone who’s watched teens dance these days knows why that one is a problem. The real issue is we’re living in a society of double speak. Nothing means what it’s supposed to mean, but that’s OK as long as everyone is happy. That brings me to the FAA.

Speaking before the Air Charter Safety Symposium not too long ago, John Allen, FAA Flight Standards Service Director, told the group he’s been changing the culture within the Flight Standards Service. I didn’t attend the symposium, but when I read about what he’d said I briefly had a vision of Don Quixote jousting with a 10-foot-high stack of unabridged Federal Aviation Regulations.

“This includes changing the enforcement policy to encourage inspectors to first work out minor issues with operators when possible rather than immediately jumping to an enforcement action,” he said. “This can instead become a nurturing exercise.”

Nurturing exercise? Exactly what alternative universe is Allen living in? Is nurturing the new word for using a rubber hose on someone? He continued, “…this is not an attempt by the agency to befriend the industry. We are not friends,” he said. Thank goodness, for a second I was afraid the agency charged with promoting aviation might actually like the industry; I’m glad we got that straightened out.

It was reported that Allen went on to say the mission of enabling aviation is critical because if the agency doesn’t foster growth of the industry, then it could wither. “Then what do we got? Nothing,” he said.

It was all very confusing but reminiscent of the “friendlier FAA” wave that periodically roars through aviation like a tidal wave of good cheer only to be replaced with the traditional, “Book ’em Dano” mentality. Not to say there haven’t been some great guys in the FAA.

When I took my airframe mechanic practical in 1972 the moment of truth arrived when the inspector, “Pop” Shaeber, asked to see my welding project. I didn’t have one; I couldn’t get cement to stick together, let alone a cluster of five steel pipes with a welding torch.

“It’s not that hard,” he said as he put two straight cut pieces of steel in front of me. “Just run a lap joint for me. Surely you can do that.”

I accidentally turned the torch toward him, splattering him with molten steel and igniting his shirt. He patted out the flame, took the torch from me very gently, turned it off, slowly put it down and asked in a whisper not unlike Don Corleone in The Godfather, “What are you going to do after graduation?”

“I’m going to be a professional pilot,” I said with some trepidation.

“Not a mechanic? You’re never going to work on an airplane? You will never, ever try to weld anything on an airplane?”

“No,” I replied.

“You passed,” he said.

When I was flying for “Watcha” McCollum a few years later, Jay Stair, one of the local FAA inspectors, was a lone island in a sea of ex-military FAA inspectors who conducted inspections as if you were in Army Ranger School.

I was ferrying a Cessna 310 with landing-gear problems to a shop where we had our work done. The gear collapsed on touchdown and transformed the Cessna into the world’s largest paperweight. I got out and was about to walk to the office to call Mac with the bad news when Jay drove up. He had just arrived at the airport to administer a check ride to someone.

“Hey Lombardo,” he said as he pulled up next to me on the taxiway. “What happened? I just got here.”

“Haven’t a clue, Jay; just got here myself,” I replied.

He chewed on that for a second, realized he’d been had, laughed and said, “Try to be a little less creative with the report.”

Somehow I don’t see either of those conversations going the same way in the new, nurturing FAA.

With far too much regularity I hear how FAA inspectors have descended like locusts upon operators, often small mom-and-pop businesses with limited resources to defend themselves. There is no presumption of innocence until proven guilty; no “Hi, I’m from the FAA, I’m here to help you” mentality. The worst ones are administrative in nature, nothing more than improper paperwork, yet the action has destroyed businesses even though some have subsequently been found to be not guilty of anything.

For an agency whose “critical” mission is to promote aviation, the FAA is more like the epoxy that lubricates the wheels of progress. New York should add nurturing to its list of words that make people uncomfortable; a lot of people in aviation find the FAA’s nurturing to be very uncomfortable.

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