It has been fashionable at various times for the FAA to bill itself as being “kinder and gentler” when it comes to rules enforcement. The concept sounds good, but does it make sense? The people in charge of Flight Standards, the group within FAA that oversees the rules and rules compliance, don’t really think so.
The reality is that the FAA—along with all other parts of government—is being squeezed to do more with less. A long term FAA budget was finally passed by Congress and signed into law, the first in several years, but the budget puts a strict cap on FAA resources. The FAA needs to be sure it gets more bang for each buck.
The Flight Standards division of FAA’s job is to regulate all aspects of civil aviation. Creating rules that enhance safety is key, but creating rules that make sense and are effective is crucial. Once those rules are on the books, the other element of regulation is to enforce rules compliance. And it’s rules compliance—actually lack of—that can bring the FAA and pilots into conflict.
When as pilots we break the rules we possibly create an unsafe situation, but we also disrupt the task of regulation. If you think of FAA regulation as a version of quality control than it’s easy to see that we all need to fly to the same standard. When we do abide by a standard it becomes possible to identify which regulations are effective, and which are not. It’s the same as building a complex machine. If all parts of the machine are created to the same high standard, it’s possible to spot a part that is not working and needs to be redesigned. If the process of creating each part is not controlled and parts characteristics wonder all over the place you can’t know if it is the process of building the parts, or the design of the part, that is causing failures in the completed machine.
So if you are a regulator of parts manufacturing, or flying, you need to maintain a quality standard to achieve the goal of ever higher performance and quality in the finished product. The question for any regulator when parts, or behavior, fall out of tolerance is how to fix the problem to minimize the chance of that happening again. An effective regulator wants to correct the quality problem as quickly as possible, and for the least cost and disruption.
Wanting to quickly fix a problem is the attitude I hear coming out of the people at FAA Flight Standards. What that means is they want to identify as quickly as possible what caused a pilot’s flying to fall outside the boundaries of the rules. In almost every case the problem was simply a mistake, or perhaps a lack of knowledge of the rules by the pilot. Informing the pilot of his mistake, or directing him to undergo additional training, solves the regulatory issue in almost every case. Going down the long and expensive road to punish the pilot through a certificate action consumes a huge amount of limited FAA resources and there is really no evidence that a punishing certificate suspension is any more effective in correcting the defective flying of the pilot.
That’s why the people at the FAA really don’t accept the “kinder and gentler” description of their attitude toward regulation. They want effective use of their resources and that has nothing to do with kindness or gentleness. And we all know that there is a tiny element among the pilot population that willfully disregards the rules and must be handled differently by the regulators to bring their flying back to within bounds.
I know that I have and will probably make some flying mistakes when it comes to the rules, but they were not and won’t be intentional. And if I come to the attention of the FAA after a mistake, I want the people there to know that I learned from my error and won’t make that same mistake again. I don’t expect kindness or gentleness, just an effective reminder and that’s what Flight Standards is aiming to do—regulate efficiently and effectively without collecting a bunch of pilot scalps.