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FAA Hypocrisy: While It Tightens Airline Inspections, Agency Stops Regular Maintenance of Ground-Based Equipment - (4/25/2008)

CONTACTS: Mike MacDonald, NATCA Regional Vice President, 978-317-2852;
Larry Ihlen, NATCA Engineers Bargaining Unit, 907-830-7121; Doug Church, 301-346-8245

WASHINGTON – With hundreds of thousands of air travelers having endured mass flight cancellations thus far in the Federal Aviation Administration’s rush to overreact to a crisis of safety oversight of its own making, the agency is contradicting itself by not applying the same rigid standards to an equally important part of the National Airspace System: The certification and maintenance of FAA-owned ground-based equipment such as radar and instrument landing systems.

Just last month, the FAA unilaterally implemented these changes, which has sparked a vigorous outcry from NATCA, which has filed numerous grievances against the agency. NATCA represents the engineers and other FAA safety professionals responsible for this critical work.

The FAA has relaxed its own requirements for verifying the operation of the equipment by removing the time element. In the FAA’s own words in its imposed policy notice, N 6000.216, dated 12/07/07: “The event-based certification policy eliminates the periodic requirement for systems. … This notice exempts maintenance personnel from performing system or subsystem certification as required by the periodic certification interval published in each of the maintenance technical handbooks … with Certification Requirements, published in this notice.”

Navigational aiding systems such as Instrument Landing Systems, radar and communication systems used by aircraft are the responsibility of the FAA. Appropriate maintenance and certification that the equipment is operating correctly is a critical function.    

Larry Ihlen, a senior engineer, 30-year veteran FAA employee and NATCA Alaska local engineers president, said, “The engineers of the agency have continued to warn management officials that removing the time element between checking the equipment will compromise the safety of the National Airspace System. It is amazing that the agency has descended to the level of arrogance of ignoring the professional opinions of its own subject matter experts while telling the flying public that it is making the airlines adhere to the timelines of air worthiness directives.

“The approach the FAA is taking with its own systems is like saying that you will drive your car across the country without ever checking the oil; it worked yesterday, so it will work tomorrow, unless it quits. Unfortunately, when the agency’s equipments quit, the loss of life is a very real possibility!”

Ihlen continued to say, “The scenario that exists within FAA today is not unlike the history of NASA ignoring its own engineers’ warnings of the deficiencies of the ‘O’ rings on the Space Shuttle Challenger.” Open harassment and retribution has occurred with those engineers brave enough to say the approach is wrong and unsafe.

The FAA now has tentative plans to relocate 85 percent of all engineers from Alaska to another part of the country, claiming increased efficiency.  “So”, Ihlen said, “if tragedy happens and a phone call is made to the Alaskan Regional Office for help, there will be a phone ringing on a vacant engineering desk!” Over the past two years, the FAA has allowed the engineering workforce in Alaska to be cut in half. The annual financial impact to Anchorage and Alaska’s economy, due to the removal of these employees, is expected to approach $40 million dollars.

“In the history of the FAA,” Ihlen said, “either a change has been made to the organization or a change has been made to the operation of the NAS. This is the first time that both changes are being attempted at the same time. If the American public truly understood how the FAA is playing the game of find the pea under the shell, they would be outraged. The only stop to this hemorrhage of expertise and compromising of safety will be immediate and direct Congressional action.”

Similar FAA attempts to consolidate engineering functions are occurring in New York, Boston, Kansas City, Chicago and Los Angeles. Regional Vice President and NATCA National Representative for engineers, Mike MacDonald, stated, “With the demands of continued safety of the flying public and the expected work load demands of the near future, the ill-conceived unilateral actions by the FAA across the country against the recommendations of the engineering work force and the purging of FAA’s engineering corporate knowledge will lead to an unsafe NAS.”

The FAA plans to establish a consolidated engineer location in Atlanta, Dallas and Seattle, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Decisions for the future of aviation in Alaska have been removed and the engineering expertise associated with the uniqueness of Alaska will soon follow.

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