Posted 25 days ago ago by Admin
Many facets of our lives, both personal and professional, changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. One significant entity within the aviation industry, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), took great strides in protecting their staff by providing a path for most FAA employees to work from home. During the pandemic, connecting with an FAA staff member once the communication process was developed and released seemed to be simple and functional. As an operator, we were pleasantly surprised by the expeditious email and phone call returns that were occurring in this new FAA work-from-home world, but this was all about to change.
A few documents from our FAA Principal Operations Inspector (POI) were past the promised timeframe, so I picked up the phone and called for an update. We connected and were informed that the front-line-manager (FLM) directed a delay on any further FAA tasking for certain operators. The FLM’s reasoning was not all operators were able to obtain service by the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) staff, so any effort to assist my certificate would look to be preferential treatment. What was a good situation, having an FAA Inspector with limited distractions servicing operators’ needs became a political knee-jerk reaction that all but halted progress.
This story is not unique to our operation. FAA oversight for operators reflects almost intentional dysfunctionality. FAA processes between FSDO locations have limited standardization or cohesion, and in many cases, you wouldn’t know they’re all working for the same agency. It is important to note that FAA staff are victims to FAA policy and procedures as well. FAA inspectors that attempt to work outside constricting FAA methods may find themselves the target of Inspector General (IG) investigations for just doing their job.
As an operator, we are wholly dependent upon the FAA fulfilling their obligations of oversight-supporting functions that lead to authorizations for us to simply do our jobs. The relationship between FAA and operator is often unique to the FSDO, assigned FAA Inspector, or overall relationship between the two, but is this method of oversight correct? In all fairness, my experience dealing with the FAA is mostly limited to the helicopter industry although most processes should be agnostic in this regard.
The pressure points within FAA oversight have followed industry over the past few years. As stated, the pandemic was the catalyst for many changes however, a change in workforce culture supported by union engagement with FAA management continues to drive dysfunctional processes. With dysfunctionality comes frustration on both sides of the issue. The FAA, at least within the helicopter-specific Inspector cadre, are experiencing an increased strain on obtaining and maintaining an experienced and qualified workforce. Many other contributing factors drive this situation, such as airline opportunities, but the Inspectors themselves often tell a grim story of frustration within their ranks leading them to explore other career paths.
Our operation is located within the North Texas FSDO service area with offices in Irvine, Texas. A consolidation between the Dallas and Fort Worth FSDOs occurred a decade ago, which created the North Texas FSDO. This made sense, as the operators shared space within the DFW metroplex, so oversight and customer service to the local operators would benefit from a more cohesive FSDO service area. The location of the FSDO works well in my opinion. The challenge to operators is simply gaining access to the FSDO and limited employees working out of the facility on any given day. A non-public survey of FAA office space conducted post-pandemic showed many locations with only 20-30% of FAA employees working at the FSDO office location. Although these numbers are improving, remote staffing continues to occur.
Obtaining qualified and accessible FAA Inspectors to conduct required observations and proficiency checks is nearing critical mass. The FAA instituted the Flight Safety Inspector Resource Program (FSIRP) several years ago to provide FSDO management a path to access qualified inspector resources from other FSDO locations on an as-needed basis. This effort in its infancy was functional, but short lived. A major failure point was the requirement that FSIRP “volunteer” Inspectors were fulfilling these duties in addition to their existing workload. In many cases, the managers for the FSIRP Inspectors would not allow them to conduct FSIRP activities simply because they too were understaffed. The FSIRP program remains in effect, but the limited resources within the FAA Inspector helicopter-specific staff are at a critical low.
Constant changes to FAA principal inspectors, long wait times for operator requests to be fulfilled, and new FAA processes designed to streamline FAA workflow that have caused nothing more than more delays and FAA customer loss of confidence are common expectations of our FAA. One such FAA effort is the Certification Service Oversight Process (CSOP). CSOP is a process that the FAA uses to determine if it has the necessary resources to conduct an initial certification and the continued operational safety oversight for a certificate applicant. In other words, this process helps the FAA determine if they can fulfill their obligation to the public when starting a new aviation venture such as a Part 135 or Part 141 operator or air agency operation. The process determines if the certification process will be assigned and begin, or if the applicant will be placed on a wait list. These lists can easily exceed one year.
The list goes on where FAA oversight dysfunctionality exists. There is one light of hope that exists within the FAA that could change and improve the situation. The good people at the FAA are fully aware of this reality and could make a change. The question is: will they?
About the Author: Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.
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