Concerns that the US FAA is increasingly shifting the burden of safety oversight onto airlines have started to be raised by industry players, as the agency's risk-based, data-driven Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS) undergoes regulatory scrutiny.
Launched in 1998 with the 10 largest US carriers in service at the time, ATOS represented a paradigm shift in the way the FAA conducted oversight of airlines.
As of December 2007, all Part 121 operators have been brought under the system, which has a five-year implementation schedule.
But while many government and industry stakeholders see ATOS as an improvement over the FAA's past safety oversight protocol, cracks in the system have arisen.
This was underscored last year by the highly publicised breakdown in the FAA's oversight of Southwest Airlines, which resulted in several congressional hearings that highlighted weaknesses in ATOS.
Some top legislators feared that the FAA had succumbed to excessively "cosy" relationships with carriers.
Those fears have not been fully quelled. Following the hearings, an independent review team tasked by the transportation secretary with studying the FAA's approach to safety, found that ATOS "still needs further attention for it to live up to its promise".
Additionally, the House of Representatives, in its latest mark-up of FAA reauthorisation legislation, directs the FAA to increase the number of aviation safety inspectors, create an independent "Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office" and mandate a two-year "post-service" cooling-off period after inspectors leave the FAA.
If the legislation is passed, principal supervisory inspectors would be rotated between airline oversight offices every five years and monthly reviews of the ATOS database would be required "to ensure that trends in regulatory compliance are identified and appropriate corrective actions taken".
The Department of Transportation's watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, is also conducting audits to, among other things, examine the FAA's implementation of ATOS.
Courtney Scott, public and legislative affairs specialist for the OIG office of legal, legislative and external affairs, says the OIG is "not in a position to discuss what we may or may not be finding or when we plan to issue a report".
However, at least one former FAA inspector - who is not linked to the Southwest case - intends to alert regulators to what he believes is a serious misapplication of ATOS, specifically regarding the Safety Attribute Inspection (SAI) data collection tool.
Unlike the Element Performance Inspection (EPI) portion of ATOS, which is designed to inspect the operational performance of a particular airline function, SAI is intended to focus on the design and documentation of various air carrier programmes.
Once completed, the inspector enters the results of both EPI and SAI inspections in the ATOS database, which is used by the agency for predictive analysis in hopes of preventing future incidents and accidents.
"The SAIs cover 106 air carrier programmes, resulting in approximately 10,000 inspection entries. Some of the SAIs have 200-300 pages of questions and they are so specific that the inspector must have an in-depth familiarity with the carrier's programme. Each SAI inspection question must be answered by 'yes' or 'no' and be followed by a specific manual reference(s) from one or more of the air carrier's manuals," explains Ladd Lewis, who spent 20 years at the FAA, including almost five years for the ATOS Program Office.
Now head of a consulting company specialising in regulatory and safety programme support for small airlines, Lewis claims some FAA offices have begun to shift the responsibility of SAI completion on to the carriers.
He likens the practice to the following scenario. "Remember the recent peanut factory fiasco, where salmonella was discovered? Imagine the public's outrage if it was the practice of the Department of Agriculture to send the inspection forms to the factory, have them fill them out and send them back, and then the department would load that information into their computer."
Lewis says that when he retired from the FAA and became a contractor, he was astounded "at the response I got from the FAA when I pointed out that their guidance said the SAIs are not a list of questions to be given to the carriers to respond to.
"And yet, they are," he claims, "and if the carrier questions it, they [local FAA offices] tell the carriers it will delay the programme, such as adding a new aircraft or flight programme, etc. Therefore, carriers do not want to speak out against the process."
Lewis is not alone in his concerns. The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) union, which represents 11,000 FAA and Department of Defense employees, has made known its fear that the FAA has allowed ATOS to be used as a way to shift the burden of oversight from the agency to the industry.
"I think ATOS is a useful tool for an inspector, and then he or she can prioritise their duties in accordance with the data they analyse. The problem is that it is being used to essentially replace inspectors. The agency has relied on the industry for data to put into ATOS, and if the data is coming from the people you oversee, it's going to be hard to find too many faults," says PASS president Tom Brantley.
In short, says Brantley, the FAA "is relying too much on the industry to police itself".
When asked if some offices are shifting the burden of ATOS responsibility to airlines, the FAA says: "The burden of carrying out ATOS functions falls entirely on FAA inspectors, unless air carriers voluntarily agree to participate in certain types of ATOS inspections. ATOS is designed to provide an independent assessment of a carrier's compliance with the regulations and of its capacity to operate safely."
The FAA says data provided by an airline during a collaboratively conducted design assessment "must be validated by FAA inspectors" before entering the ATOS database.
It also says carriers are not required to use ATOS data collection tools to provide information when they apply to expand their scope. "Such use of ATOS data collection tools is voluntary. An air carrier that feels threatened, unfairly treated, or who objects to ATOS in general, is encouraged to use FAA's Consistency and Standardization Initiative to elevate its complaint to higher levels in the FAA."
Former FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Nicholas Sabatini further emphasises the point. He says: "What has got to be understood is this - it is the air carrier's responsibility to comply with the regulations and to always be able to demonstrate compliance. In a safety system, what gives FAA great confidence in the air carrier is knowing that we have a certified entity that is proactive in their safety risk management."
He adds: "Air carriers must have in place their own auditing system. So it should not be a burden on them. They are expected to ascertain system performance. They should be using the same tools the FAA uses."
Before development of ATOS, the FAA used a less comprehensive reporting format known as the Program Tracking and Reporting System (PTRS) to report inspection findings.
A former long-time FAA inspector, Gary Perkins, now heads the Aviation Safety Oversight Group, one of several consulting firms qualified by the FAA to assist carrier applicants in preparing for Part 121 certification. He believes ATOS is invaluable in assisting carriers with the start-up process.
"I was there [at the FAA] during a time when we certificated airlines and all we expected them to do was to have compliance with the regulations in their manuals. But you've got to understand that a lot of that compliance was purely policy. It didn't tell people how to do the job, it was just policy, and even the biggest airlines had that policy. From 1980 until 1998 [when ATOS was introduced], you could still find new airlines starting up with old Braniff and Pan Am manuals," says Perkins.
Perkins questions why a carrier would see ATOS as a burden. "You should be self-auditing already. The burden you are seeing is that they do not want to go back and look at systems that were not set up well to see if they can identify latent failures that are risk items."
Bill Bottoms, executive vice-president and one of the principals at aviation consultancy Team SAI, agrees with Perkins. "ATOS is the creation of a system safety approach. That is what it's called and what it is. It forces the operator to look at the interfaces that take place throughout all aspects of their operation and make sure those interfaces are compatible and complementary and, as such, lead to the most optimum safe environment for the carrier.
"With that said, the intent of pushing the carrier toward more ATOS standards is to push them deep into their systems to make their safety process a compatible system. So I think that placing the burden of compliance on the carrier, and the burden of satisfying the requirements, is indeed appropriate."
Lewis agrees carriers have an obligation to conduct their operations within the regulations, and that includes auditing their own processes and developing their own changes. But, he says: "The FAA has a statutory obligation to conduct inspections to insure the carrier is doing that and not use carrier-furnished inspection data to meet this obligation."
He warns: "Unless the FAA takes back their SAI inspection responsibility, they may find themselves explaining to Congress why it's such a good idea to have the air carrier furnish inspection data."