FAA engine inspections, Like many of you, I, too, celebrate—albeit cautiously—aviation’s accident record; or rather the lack-of-accidents record. This past year saw zero fatalities worldwide in commercial passenger jet travel, causing many to laud it as “the safest year in aviation ever.” It’s important to note that this statistic includes only “passenger,” “commercial,” and “jet” flights. There were 10 other airliner accidents (including cargo and turboprop aircraft) that resulted in 79 fatalities, involving crewmembers, passengers, and people on the ground. In the U.S., the last fatal crash involving a scheduled, FAA-certified airline was the 2009 Colgan accident outside Buffalo, New York. All 49 people on the aircraft were killed, as was one person on the ground. Again, it’s important to read all the modifiers in that sentence; we’re talking about FAA-certified, scheduled airlines, which doesn’t include most Part 135 flights and foreign airlines like the Asiana Airlines flight that crashed in San Francisco in 2013, killing three people.
Notwithstanding all the qualifiers to the accident records, there’s no question great strides have been made in managing risk and creating a safer system. I applaud all those who have made the accident rates as low as they are. Safety is truly a team effort and everyone deserves credit: the frontline workers (pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, ramp workers, and so many others)—, those who toil in back offices doing the unheralded jobs that also contribute to the incredibly low accident rate (data gatherers and analysts, to name just two), and their supervisors, managers, and executives in industry and government whose leadership deserves recognition.
But lately, I worry, too, that there’s been too much patting on the back about this “safety” record from some in the government, as well as industry. Whenever people equate accident statistics with safety, I am reminded of the famous words of Jerome Lederer: the absence of accidents doesn’t mean your operation is safe. (Jerome Lederer is an aviation safety pioneer, widely credited with being the father of the system safety approach to aviation safety.) So, all this bragging about the accident rate or how safe the system is has me concerned that complacency will rear its ugly head and that people will—consciously or unconsciously—dismiss airline safety concerns because “there hasn’t been a fatal passenger airline accident in the U.S. since 2009.”
And that complacency is inimical to aviation safety. As those of you in maintenance surely learned, complacency is one of the human factors’ “dirty dozen,” the preconditions for the most common human errors that lead to accidents or incidents. The list was developed in Canada but is now taught to maintenance professionals worldwide. The Flight Safety Foundation defines complacency, ranked as number five on the list, as “a feeling of self-satisfaction accompanied by a loss of awareness.” This can happen on an individual level, as well as an organizational level. My fear is that it can happen on a national level, if we’re not vigilant to its dangers.
I’ve been concerned about complacency setting in but was particularly concerned by a quote in a news report attributed to the acting FAA Administrator in response to a DOT Inspector General report highly critical of the FAA’s actions regarding suspected unapproved parts. The report found the “FAA’s oversight of industry actions to remove unapproved parts is ineffective.” According to the NBC news report, “FAA Acting Administrator Daniel K. Elwell told the investigative unit his agency is reviewing the inspector general’s recommendations while also touting his agency’s safety track record. ‘There has not been a commercial passenger fatality in the U.S. in nine years. It’s an amazing safety record that is borne from a collaborative approach to safety,’ Elwell said.”
Statements like this make my head spin. Like many of you who recall (or have studied) the tragedy of ValuJet Flight 592, the McDonnell-Douglas DC-9 that went down in the Everglades in 1996 killing all 110 people on board, you will also remember that then FAA Administrator David Hinson and Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena rushed to the scene of this deadly crash to reassure the public that the airline was safe and if it wasn’t, the FAA would have grounded it. Well, just a month later, ValuJet was indeed grounded for serious deficiencies the FAA noted both before and after the crash.
So now, some 20 plus years later, we have an Acting FAA administrator assuring us basically not to worry about an IG report on unapproved parts getting onto airlines because the system is so safe. And sure enough, a week later, the FAA issues a press release revoking the repair station certificate of an Arlington, Texas company for, among other things, allegedly overhauling turbine engine bearings for General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and CFM International engines without using approved data. The company planned to appeal the FAA’s emergency order. So much for not worrying about unapproved parts. I hope the FAA is doing more than just revoking a Part 145 certificate and actually doing something about any of these engine bearings that may be flying around the system.