Monday, December 31, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- December 31

This is the busiest day in FAA history I’ve seen by far. I’ll probably put up a couple of other postings today (assuming I can find the time) but I think I’ll start with the most appropriate.

There was an episode on The West Wing entitled “Take Out the Trash Day.” The gist is that it’s a ploy to minimize the damage a bad news story will do to the Administration. December 31 is the ultimate “Trash Day.” Accordingly, the FAA and NASA will release a report today that they had previously tried to bury. Bad news, the FAA and NASA. Let’s look at the history.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Dec 31, 1971: FAA terminated its four-year-old policy of granting immunity from enforcement action to airmen reporting near midair collisions. FAA had adopted this policy on Jan 1, 1968, to encourage full reporting of near midair collisions, and thus gather adequate data for developing midair collision prevention programs. In 1969, FAA published a midair collision report based on data collected during 1968; data collected in subsequent years substantiated the findings of the 1969 report. FAA saw no need, therefore, to continue its immunity policy. (See Jul 15, 1969, and Apr 8, 1975.) “

”Jul 15, 1969: FAA issued a study of near midair collisions. To encourage the reporting of such incidents, FAA had granted pilots and other airmen immunity from penalties under the Federal Aviation Regulations (see Jan 1, 1968). This study found that most of the reported near miss incidents of 1968 that were judged to be hazardous had occurred in congested airspace near large airports having air traffic control service, and resulted from mixing controlled traffic with traffic under visual flight rules. On Jul 31, 1969, on the heels of FAA's report, the National Transportation Safety Board released a study of actual midair collisions, which was also based on incidents occurring in 1968. In contrast to FAA's findings on near misses, the Board found that the majority of the 38 real collisions had taken place in uncongested airspace at or near airports without air traffic control service. There was no evidence that adverse weather was a significant factor in any of the 38 accidents. All of the 71 persons killed in the collisions were occupants of general aviation aircraft. A general aviation aircraft was involved in each accident, with three collisions involving air carrier aircraft and one military airplane. On Dec 4, 1969, FAA's near miss reporting program was extended for an additional two years (see Dec 31, 1971). “

”Apr 8, 1975: Acting Administrator James E. Dow announced the establishment of the Aviation Safety Reporting Program (ASRP), designed to provide the agency with information on potentially unsafe conditions in the National Airspace System, effective May 1, 1975. To encourage the reporting of violations, the program granted immunity from disciplinary action to pilots or controllers who filed a timely report. No immunity was granted, however, in the case of "reckless operations, criminal offenses, gross negligence, willful misconduct, and accidents." FAA remained free to take corrective or remedial action necessary for air safety. Although such immunity programs had been instituted before (see Jan 1, 1968), the ASRP was the first not limited to reports of near midair collisions. The program's establishment anticipated one of the recommendations being prepared by the Secretary's Task Force on the FAA Safety Mission (see Jan 28, 1975), of which Dow served as Executive Secretary. The Air Line Pilots Association, skeptical of the ASRP, preferred a system in which a third party would process reports and protect their confidentiality. (See Aug 15, 1975.)“

There are about a dozen more entries I could make on this subject but I’ll stop before I lose the entire audience. Slowly but surely, the program morphed into the Aviation Safety Reporting System. During my career, it was -- by far -- the most effective safety program in existence. Much of that effectiveness was because of the trust the program administrators have earned over the years. Trust was a big part of the reason they were chosen to run the program in the first place. Who were these trusted people ? None other than NASA.

I’ll say it again. Most people have no idea how much damage has been done to their government during the Bush Administration. Perhaps the biggest causality of all is trust.

Don Brown
December 31, 2007

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