The FAA's controversial public ratings of foreign civil aviation authorities' safety practices is causing many to cry foul and is wreaking havoc with some non-US carriers' finances. Jane Levere reports. That the oversight of airline safety and civil aviation authorities remains paramount was never in dispute - and December's tragic crash in Colombia of an American Airlines Boeing 757 was an unnecessary reminder. But the way in which this role is being developed by the US Federal Aviation Administration is an increasingly politicised and complicated issue.

Since September 1994 the US FAA's International Aviation Safety Assessment (Iasa) programme - in which the FAA determines if a foreign country's civil aviation authority is adhering to Icao's safety standards - has delivered public, often critical ratings of a number of authorities. If, in the FAA's view, a country's authority does not adequately meet Icao requirements, the administration will ban all operations to the US by airlines from that country or, less punitively, freeze these operations at current levels until Icao standards are met.

Virtually no industry official argues with the FAA's goal of upgrading safety oversight of civil aviation authorities, but many do question its means of achieving this goal, and claim the FAA is handling this diplomatically sensitive matter in an often imperialistic and bullying fashion.

Specifically, critics feel the FAA's first few publicly announced ratings have unfairly singled out Caribbean, Central and South American countries, while others - notably important trading partners like China - have been spared. More than half of the 50 countries rated so far are in the Caribbean or Latin America; seven of the 11 countries whose airlines are banned from flying to the US are in those regions as are nine of the 12 whose airlines' US operations have been frozen. The FAA's decision to freeze carrier operations often unfairly punishes airlines for the sins of negligent civil aviation authorities in their home countries, add the critics.

Iasa was launched in 1991, after a series of accidents and incidents involving passenger and cargo airlines forced the FAA to question whether non-US civil aviation authorities were providing appropriate oversight, as mandated by Icao, of their carriers. Membership of Icao is based on the assumption that each member country adheres to the organisation's international safety standards, spelled out in the 1944 Chicago Convention.

Under the Iasa programme, the FAA considers whether a country has the legislation and regulations needed for its government to meet Icao's safety requirements; whether it has implemented these regulations and conducted air carrier certifications, routine inspections and surveillance programmes; and whether it has the organisation and personnel needed to implement and enforce the safety rules.

The FAA then places each civil aviation authority into one of three categories it has arbitrarily created. Category I means the FAA has found the country adequately complies with Icao standards. Category II is a conditional rating, meaning the FAA believes the authority does not meet Icao standards in certain areas and corrective measures are being negotiated by the FAA. As a result the airline operations of the Category II country are frozen at the level mandated by the US bilateral at the time of the rating and the FAA increases inspections of these operations. Category III means the FAA has found a country's civil aviation authority does not comply with Icao's requirements. The FAA prohibits flights to the US by an airline from a Category III country unless they are operated under a wetlease with an airline from a country that does meet Icao standards.

During the Bush administration the FAA opted not to publicise the Iasa ratings, relying instead - according to one official - on quiet diplomacy.

In September 1994, much to the dismay of Latin American countries and airlines that had not been forewarned, the FAA went public with its newest ratings at a press conference; it also announced a toll-free telephone hotline to explain them to US travellers. 'I don't think the decision to go public came out of the FAA; it was dragged into it by the [Department of Transportation]. It was likely a political move, to show they were tougher on safety than anyone else,' one Washington lawyer suggests.

The FAA was criticised at the time by many airlines whose countries' ratings were released for not clearly distinguishing between the safety of airlines and the safety oversight responsibilities of the countries concerned. As aviation lawyer Robert Papkin wrote in a later speech, 'Even a trade publication like Air Safety Week . . . ran an article about the press conference under the headline, "DOT Releases Assessment of Nations with Unsafe Air Carriers." If that distinction is difficult for the trade press to grasp, imagine how hard it is for the average passenger to comprehend.'

Papkin and others also complained about a suggestion by DOT secretary Federico Peña that travellers could use US carriers instead of airlines from Category II or III rated countries. This idea 'overshadowed the point that an inadequate oversight capability did not necessarily mean that the airlines of that country were unsafe,' Papkin says.

Whenever the FAA has publicly released any new ratings since, it has deliberately sought to explain them more clearly and in a less inflammatory fashion. As of late November, 50 countries had been formally assessed, with 11 rated Category III and 12 Category II. The FAA will assess the remaining 50 requiring ratings and place Canada, Japan, and the 18 European Joint Aviation Authority countries in Category I by the end of 1996.

Meanwhile the FAA is still under attack from Latin American nations and their respective airlines, which believe they are being unfairly picked on by the FAA for review. They claim other countries like China and Russia, which have not yet been assessed under the Iasa programme, and which they feel the US considers more important trading partners, are being treated by the FAA with kid gloves. A late 1994 joint evaluation by the FAA and the Russian civil aviation authorities found that Russia minimally complied with international safety standards and needed to take steps to prevent its safety oversight from slipping below these levels. Since then, the FAA has worked with Russia to help improve its safety oversight.

According to Papkin, the FAA's Russia stance 'only reinforces the perception that the FAA's assessment programme has a political dimension. Frankly, it came as a shock to many Latin countries to have their safety oversight capability become the centre of US government condemnation, when a country like Russia is placed in Category I. Certainly, the status of Russia's oversight system appears to be no better, if not worse, than those of Category II countries.'

Tony Broderick, the FAA associate administrator who oversees the Iasa programme, denies his organisation plays political favourites when it decides which countries to rate. 'I consider Latin American countries to be very important trade partners and close allies of the US,' he says. 'When you're faced with the need to visit 80 countries - 50 since late 1994 - you can't do them all at the same time.'

There have also been many complaints, from South American airline chiefs and US and Latin American observers, about the 'heavy-handed' way FAA implements Iasa, and particularly its decision to freeze the operations of airlines from Category II countries. But FAA logic is that when the airlines' expansion and profits are adversely affected by the Category II rating, the carriers will pressure their countries' aviation authorities into complying with Icao standards.

'I think it's fair the United States looks after the safety of its citizens,' notes the president of one airline whose country was recently put into Category II. 'But I think the punishment is designed to punish the airlines, and that's not fair. It's too harsh on the airlines. And such harshness is not required to get the authorities moving.'

Some airlines in Category II countries are already beginning to feel the economic impact of this rating. Air Jamaica is unable to use its own B727 on a new route to Newark, or its four leased A310s, and has lost $3 million per month since December as a direct result of its operations being frozen. At presstime the carrier was awaiting an FAA decision on whether it would be permitted to operate its A310s to the US due to progress on achieving category I standards.

ACES, a Medellin, Colombia-based carrier, lost $50,000 in December when delivery of a new B727-200 with an all business-class configuration was delayed because of complications stemming from Category II restraints; it had to wetlease a less luxuriously appointed aircraft and give its passengers free domestic tickets as compensation. At present, Faucett is unable to increase its Lima-Miami cargo service and, if Peru's Category II rating is not lifted, neither Faucett nor AeroPeru will be able to launch new services to compete with Continental's New York/Newark-Lima flights, slated to begin in March.

If Trinidad and Tobago are not in Category I by March, BWIA will not be able to fly a B727 currently being converted for freighter service to Miami, as planned. BWIA's codesharing agreement with American is stalled, and its re-equipment with Airbuses will have to await Category I status. An equipment purchase decision tentatively scheduled for February or March by Tampa, a Colombian cargo carrier, may also be delayed if Colombia is not in Category I by then.

Worse, the Latin American airlines complain that their countries' resources - both financial and human - are too limited to meet Icao requirements, and that the FAA expects them to improve their oversight in an unreasonably short timeframe. However Broderick has little sympathy for countries that claim they cannot afford to upgrade. 'If a country's economy is going to benefit from international air transportation, then it will have to allocate resources from it for safety oversight. It could charge a ticket tax from the general fund. But how it raises these funds is not as important as that it is done,' he says.

But Broderick is somewhat more flexible about the deadlines imposed by the FAA on countries that need to improve their oversight and says the FAA has 'agreed to look at individual requests for anything. They'll be evaluated on their own merits, and we'll be as flexible as possible. If [countries] need more time to change their operating specs, if we can find a way to accommodate [them], we will do so.'

Airlines, consultants and even the FAA have devised a variety of ways to help countries meet Icao's requirements. Avitas and the Flight Safety Foundation are providing consulting services to the governments of Colombia and Peru respectively, to help them attain a Category I rating. SH&E is trying to convince one aircraft manufacturer to underwrite a technical assistance programme for countries with Category II or III ratings and argues such a programme would benefit not only the countries but also the manufacturer in the long term. The FAA is offering its own training courses to Category II aviation authorities and has encouraged US airlines like United to provide inspection and maintenance training to regulatory employees from Latin countries such as Peru.

South American aviation specialist Bob Booth believes he has an equitable solution to the problems posed when the operations of airlines in Category II countries are frozen. Booth proposes that US and other Category I country carriers serving a Category II country should have their operations frozen too, so that no individual carrier is unfairly penalised. Broderick rejects this idea, but Booth claims the associate administrator 'doesn't want to get into a pissing match with Bob Crandall. It's one thing to freeze little Faucett out, but if you try to freeze Crandall out, all hell will break loose.'

More significantly, Icao voted in October to establish its own safety oversight programme, similar to the aviation security programme it instituted in 1990. All 184 Icao member states are eligible for the oversight programme, which is designed to ensure compliance with Icao's safety standards. They can voluntarily ask Icao to conduct an oversight audit (which, unlike the FAA's audits, will be confidential), and also seek advice and financial assistance to correct any deficiencies. The FAA is lending Icao two executives to work full-time on the audit programme and the US is providing $150,000 in seed money.

As of mid-December, 24 member states had sought an assessment, while an equal number had pledged funding and other assistance. 'There will be a lot more cooperation from countries when (the Icao assessment) is handled confidentially. There won't be the resistance or resentment there is when the FAA does it,' predicts a veteran Washington aviation attorney.

The FAA's Broderick welcomes Icao's initiative, though he doubts it will ever totally replace the Iasa programme. 'You'll need an independent assessment if Icao can't get to a country in time - for example, if the United States needs an assessment right away when Belize wants to start service in one month and Icao is backlogged,' he says.

Others question how effective the Icao programme can be if Icao cannot exert any political or economic pressure on member countries to comply with its safety standards. Another possible solution proposed by Broderick, particularly in South America, is the establishment of regional civil aviation authorities to help enforce safety oversight throughout the continent. One Washington lawyer believes the 'Andean Pact countries would be a great place to start because Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador are all in Category II, all have a lot of air traffic, and all need to move from Category II to I and stay there. There's a mutuality of interest.'

Undoubtedly there is a need for the US to demonstrate a clear lack of favouritism in its ratings of foreign countries and their carriers. Beyond this, what's most important in South America and elsewhere is that senior politicians recognise the importance of safety oversight, and put in place adequately trained and remunerated individuals with the powers needed for its implementation. Until this political will emerges, any action by the FAA or Icao is likely to have little impact.

Source: Airline Business