FAA Places Restrictions On Former Aviation Safety Inspectors


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FAA Places Restrictions On Former Aviation Safety Inspectors

By Jim Douglas

August 21, 2011 - The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a final rule that prohibits air carriers and other certificate holders from employing certain former FAA aviation safety inspectors as company representatives to the agency for a period of two years after they have left the agency.  

 “The flying public can rest assured that our aviation safety inspectors will remain focused on protecting the flying public without any conflicts of interest,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. 

“This rule establishes clear restrictions that will improve our safety culture here at the FAA and throughout the aviation industry,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.

Certificate holders will be prohibited under certain conditions from employing, or making a contractual arrangement with, certain individuals who have worked for the FAA in the previous two years to act as an agent or a representative in any matter before the FAA. 

These restrictions will apply if the former FAA employee directly served as or was responsible for the oversight of a Flight Standards Service aviation safety inspector and had direct responsibility to inspect, or oversee the inspection of, the operations of the certificate holder. This rule will also apply to persons who own or manage fractional ownership program aircraft that are used to conduct certain commercial operations. 

This rule responds to concerns raised by Congress and the DOT Inspector General in 2008 about the FAA’s oversight of Southwest Airlines. The DOT Inspector General concluded that that the FAA office overseeing the airline had developed an overly close relationship with the airline and recommended that the FAA create post-employment guidance that includes a “cooling-off” period to prohibit an air carrier from hiring an aviation safety inspector who previously inspected that air carrier. 

According to SWA at that time, it discovered it had violated the AD requiring fuselage inspections on March 14, 2007, and notified an FAA principal maintenance inspector (PMI) the following day. Although FAA requires air carriers to ground non-compliant aircraft and its inspectors to ensure that carriers comply, the inspector did not direct SWA to ground the 46 affected aircraft.


Instead, the PMI encouraged SWA to formally self-disclose the AD violation through its Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (VDRP), which would allow the carrier to avoid any penalties. FAA accepted the air carrier’s self-disclosure on March 19, 2007, even though it had already accepted multiple disclosures on AD violations. SWA continued to operate the non-compliant aircraft on 1,451 flights for 8 days after the carrier first notified FAA, carrying an estimated 145,000 passengers. OIG estimated that, in total, aircraft flew in violation of the AD for up to 9 months, carrying 6 million passengers during this period. 

Once it formally self-disclosed the violation, SWA stated that it was in compliance with the AD, meaning it had inspected or grounded all affected aircraft. However, two FAA inspectors (the whistleblowers in this case) and SWA officials reported that the PMI had knowingly permitted SWA to continue flying the identified aircraft even after SWA’s self-disclosure.

During Office of Inspector General review, they found that several of these aircraft flew into airports multiple times after SWA self-disclosed the overflight where they could have received the required inspections. When SWA finally inspected the aircraft, it found fuselage cracks in five of them. The AD specifies that these cracks could potentially lead to fuselage separation and rapid aircraft depressurization if left in disrepair.

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