Budget Cuts Threaten Safety Programs
Fewer people and less money - after accounting for inflation - will be available in coming years to provide safety oversight of the aviation industry. The information emerging from recently released U.S. government budget documents shows that some high priority safety programs are being sharply cut back or are being zeroed out entirely.
The trends, contained in fiscal year 2005 budget request documents for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suggest that the agency faces a significant challenge in coming years, specifically: managing safety mandates while coping with increasing fixed costs in the face of a shrinking budget. The implication for the situation a few years from now is sobering, as that near-future will come at a time of great pressure to reduce federal spending to meet the Bush administration's promise in this campaign season to halve the deficit within five years.
Thus, the fiscal 2005 budget request provides a glimpse of belt-tightening to come for an agency that declares in its budget sub-mission that safety is the top priority. The FAA's $13.9 billion total budget request for fiscal 2005 increases only $99 million. This increase of seven-tenths of a percent is not sufficient to keep FAA funding apace with the rate of inflation. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) projects inflation in fiscal 2005 at 1.4 percent. In other words, the agency's real purchasing power, as it were, decreases. While the FAA is asking for a $99 million increase, that 1.4- percent inflation rate means a decrease of some $195 million.
The agency estimates that $8.8 billion of its budget request is devoted to the support of its safety programs - or roughly 63 percent of every dollar. Of its 48,800 full time equivalent (FTE) personnel, the FAA asserts that 42,000 are devoted to safety programs, or nearly nine out of ten people in the agency.
However, between 2004 and 2005, the number of FTEs supporting safety programs is slated to decline slightly. While dollar increases are shown in some safety programs, they decrease in others. Seven program areas have been selected to illustrate the emerging oversight challenge facing the agency.
A bit of cognitive dissonance seems to be at work. In its budget documents, the Department of Transportation (DOT) said the FAA "will develop and implement airport design standards and surface movement procedures to mitigate the risk of runway incursions." The FAA is part of DOT and its budget is a subset of the DOT request. Despite the action verbiage about the runway safety program, the money devoted to fielding incursion-prevention technology declines in 2005 and the number of FTEs in the FAA's office of runway safety also decreases significantly.
Air traffic control (ATC) modernization projects are described in DOT budget documents as vital to "improve aviation safety and sustain capacity." However, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) sees a $395 million (16 percent) cut in spending on ATC facilities and equipment.
"You cannot modernize the system and add capacity by announcing there will be vastly less money to pay for it," declared NATCA President John Carr. The plan to triple capacity in the next 15-20 years amounts, he said, to an "empty election year promise that sounds good but doesn't add up to anything more than fuzzy math." The budget documents for facilities and equipment (T&E), which includes ATC modernization, show the $2.9 billion for the current year shrinking to $2.5 billion in fiscal 2005, assuming this is the amount ultimately appropriated.
The credibility gap seems greatest in moving technology from research and development into cost-effective deployment. For example, the DOT budget documents said, "A Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) evaluation found that FAA's research program is effective, well-managed, and results-oriented, which helped inform the 2005 budget request for this program."
This assuring statement is contradicted by recent reports from the DOT Office of The Inspector General (DOT/IG). On air traffic control modernization programs, the DOT/IG said that while improvement is noted, a number of problems are troubling:
Committing to major acquisitions and entering into long-term cost-reimbursable contracts before user needs and agency requirements are fully understood;
Misleading and unreliable cost and schedule estimates;
Beginning new, costly, and complex programs while still funding programs that are significantly over cost and behind schedule (see www.oig.dot.gov/item_details.php?item=1195 and also [URL=http://www.oig.dot.gov/item_details.php?item=1113).]www.oig.dot.gov/item_details.php?item=1113).[/URL]
The program to reduce cabin injuries from in-flight turbulence is considered a priority effort, yet funding and people dedicated to the effort disappear in the fiscal 2005 request. In its budget document, the FAA said that its Flight Plan is linked to the agency's budget requests. Even though the FAA has established a goal to reduce turbulence- induced serious cabin injuries to 12, down from an average of 18 per year, neither money nor people are linked to this effort in the budget.
The single largest program is devoted to reducing the fatal accident rate of air carriers. The specific initiatives outlined in the Flight Plan document outline programs whose potential costs run to hundreds of millions of dollars. Even one such program, the one listed at the top of the plan regarding improved fuel tank safety, could exceed the three percent increase shown on this line in the FAA's budget - a tiny addition largely eaten up by inflation.
Job One: Reduce the Commercial Airline Fatal Accident Rate
From the FAA's Flight Plan 2004-2008:
Expand FAA-industry partnerships and data-driven safety programs that prioritize and address risks before they lead to accidents.
Implement Phase II of the Fuel Tank Safety Assessment for SFAR 88.
Continue implementing the Air Transport Oversight System (ATOS).
Continue implementing Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) initiatives.
Take all actions necessary to resolve open National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations (ASW note: Most of the "Most Wanted" items on the NTSB's list have been stalled for years; see ASW, May 12, 2003).
Ensure that safety oversight keeps pace with [industry] changes ... especially for repair stations (ASW note, the DOT Inspector General has found FAA oversight of repair stations sadly lacking; see ASW, July 21, 2003).
Pursue a targeted enforcement and oversight program (ASW note: such a program is people-intensive, requiring site inspections and analysts to mine the data).
Reduce the risk of [runway] collisions. (ASW note: the FAA plans to spend up to $100 million deploying ASDE-X [airport surface detection equipment Model-X] and AMASS [airport movement area safety system] systems to help prevent runway collisions, but these surveillance and software systems provide warnings to tower controllers. They do not provide warnings directly to pilots, one of the prime performance criteria sought by the NTSB. As one industry observer quipped of the FAA's breathless announcement last week of the first operational ASDE-X at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wis., "ASDE-X isn't a system that sounds alarm bells for all concerned; it just ensures that everyone is looking up at the time of the fireball.")
Where practical, upgrade runway safety areas to meet standards (ASW note: lack of such areas contributed to a runway overrun at Burbank, Calif. See ASW, Aug. 26, 2002).
Safety is the absolute number one priority, according to the Federal Aviation Administration in its fiscal 2005 budget documents. The agency claims that some 60 percent of its budget and tens of thousands of its people are devoted to safety, notably to further reduce the commercial air carrier fatal accident rate. Yet the FAA does not appear to be following its own stated safety policy. Case in point, Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin (SAIB) No. CE-04-47, issued Jan. 16. This document notes that improper installation of bolts attaching the wings to British Aerospace Jetstream 31 twin-turboprop airplanes could "severely compromise" the structural integrity of the wing-to-fuselage attachment. A wing structural problem led to two fatal accidents of Beech T-34 Mentor aircraft (see ASW, Dec. 8, 2003).The SAIB notes that the manufacturer has issued a mandatory service bulletin (SB) on this potentially deadly problem. Instead of seconding the manufacturer's initiative with an airworthiness directive (AD), requiring compliance with the SB, the FAA elected to issue an informational SAIB.The FAA has stated that its policy regarding ADs is that "there must be an 'unsafe condition' ... to put out an AD. That's the prime criterion." (See ASW, Jan. 19) Consider how this looks:The wings could break.The manufacturer has issued a mandatory bulletin to correct the problem.FAA stated policy is to mandate fixes to unsafe conditions.The FAA issues a non-binding bulletin. Given these appearances, the FAA was asked to comment:"The bolt failures ... were caused by improper maintenance. The normal maintenance procedures in the Jetstream maintenance manual were not followed correctly. No known airplane accidents or incidents have occurred as a result of these bolt failures. No airworthiness directive (AD) action was mandated because, in accordance with [FAA] Order M-8040.1, 'An AD should not be issued ... to assure the use of normal maintenance practices on a product where ... improper maintenance or lack of maintenance have contributed to an unsafe condition.'"Special Airworthiness Bulletin CE-04-47 alerted the maintenance community about the possibility of improperly installing the wing attach bolt. We will issue a revision to SAIB CE-04-47 to provide additional background information about the nature of the observed condition and explain the reason this structural problem does not warrant being raised to the level of an AD."Fair enough, but Matt Thurber, editor of sister publication Aviation Maintenance magazine, notes that many ADs are issued to correct maintenance discrepancies.There is a larger lingering question: does this policy leave the FAA perpetually behind the proverbial curve, issuing ADs for maintenance problems only after an accident occurs? If so, here is evidence of what critics label the reactive "tombstone" approach to safety, rather than the proactive mitigation of latent threats to safety.
Avalanche of ADs
Speaking of mandatory corrections to unsafe conditions, more ADs are coming on the MD-11. Recall that five were issued recently, all dealing with electrical system problems (see ASW, Jan. 26). These actions are part of a five-phase "corrective action program" that began shortly after the September 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111, an MD-11 (see ASW, May 29, 2000). The program takes an incremental approach, starting with the most hazardous and working down, to correct deficiencies of design and installation in the MD-11 electrical system.The fifth package, a Federal Aviation Administration official said, consists of 27 ADs, of which 23 have been published. The four remaining ADs will be published in the latter half of 2004.The total package, not including supersedures, will be 64 ADs when finished.
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