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FAA codifies “cooling off” rule for former inspectors

The US FAA is proposing formal rules that would prevent airlines and fractional ownership programs from hiring former air safety inspectors (ASIs) or their immediate managers to represent the carriers or companies "in any matter before" the FAA for at least two years after leaving the agency.

ASIs work in a variety of specialties for the FAA, including cabin safety, maintenance and operations.

Meant to prevent what the FAA says is a "potential organizational conflicts of interest which could adversely affect aviation safety", the proposed cooling off period has been the topic of several House and Senate bills, a review by the Department of Transportation's inspector general (IG) and an internal investigation by the FAA.

Initiating the action was a $10.2 million fine the FAA proposed to levy on Southwest Airlines on 5 March 2008 for operating 46 Boeing 737s. The agency said the carrier used the aircraft on 60,000 revenue flights over a period of nine months without performing mandatory airworthiness directive (AD) inspections for fuselage fatigue cracking.

The IG later revealed that Southwest's regulatory compliance manager was a former FAA ASI who joined Southwest two weeks after leaving the FAA, where he had reported directly to the principle maintenance inspector for low-fare carrier.

The watchdog concluded that the FAA certificate management office overseeing Southwest "had developed an overly collaborative relationship with the airline. That relationship allowed repeated self-disclosures of AD violations without ensuring that the airline had developed a comprehensive solution for those reported safety problems".

Though the FAA already has a requirement that newly employed ASIs have a two-year cooling off period before being assigned to airlines they had previously worked for, it does not have a corresponding rule preventing newly departed ASIs from going to work with an airline they have been overseeing.

Based on an analysis of 208 ASIs who left the FAA during a one year period starting 1 October 2007, the agency says 160 would have been impacted by the new rule.

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