A Kinder FAA, or a More Effective FAA?

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.

This entry was posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A Kinder FAA, or a More Effective FAA?

  1. Dan says:

    Probably the most cogent thing you’ve written in some time.

  2. mike retsoc says:

    Wrong Mac. The only thing worse than a poorly spent government dollar is a well spent, effective one. Particularly at the FAA nowadays. Until they get they mission on track and their aviation support and advocacy role right, I am happy to see them get less buck and do less with those that they get.

  3. Gaehazzi says:

    Living and flying abroad, I dont have much interaction with the FAA. I do have interaction, though, with an FAA clone in my country. I wish they could even imagine that a “kinder and gentler” way is imaginable. To me that way may mean just these: (1) They should by all means protect innocent bystanders from me, but I don’t remember granting them any authority to protect me from myself. (2) The fewer restrictions they invent, the fewer violations they generate. (3) If they restrict breathing they may rest assured that no matter what the sanction is nobody would give a damn. (4) If they fear being burned from below, they should use fire-proof diapers, not leech-type suction caps.

  4. David Vandenbroeck says:

    So when the local FSDO decides to put a pilot through a 44709 reexamination ride because they learn through a third person who was not even a witness that the pilot had a single hard landing in which no regulation was violated and there was no damage or other criteria met that would make it reportable under Part 830 as an accident or incident, would you consider it either kind or effective? This happened recently in the Jackson MS FSDO. I would call it unkind, ineffective and ignorant.

    • Mac says:

      Hi David,
      That is exactly the kind of waste of resources the Flight Standards leadership in Washington is trying to stop. But, it will take time for the goals and objectives to reach down to every FSDO. Let’s hope the FAA can get the message to its own people that the kind of event you describe is the largest possible waste of money and time, and does nothing but build ill will between the regulators and the regulated, which is totally harmful.
      Mac Mc

      • David Vandenbroeck says:

        Well Mac, in my opinion my recent and still ongoing experience with the Jackson FSDO should be made into a case study for all FAA inspectors to study on what not to do. From others that I have spoken to the FSDO inspector involved (Melvin Athey) frequently goes over the top. I fail to see how they can act on third hand info or on their own whim to force a pilot to submit to a 709. Now I am certain that there are times when a re-exam is warranted but if they cannot exercise some sound judgment then they should not be in this position.


        You would probably find the complete story to be extremely both silly and infuriating but there is probably not enough space here for me to go into more detail.

  5. Frank Giger says:

    Another thought provoking article!

    On standards of material and assemblies, there’s a real challenge to get the appropriate tolerance of performance. I saw this with some mil-spec stuff where the requirements were often overstated for some equipment, making it too expensive for the intended use – see the specs for an aviation coffee maker for a prime example. I don’t envy the folks that have to work through it, like how much G-force shock a piece of electronics should be able to take and still work. Too low and it’ll crap out on a hard landing; too high and it’s pointless, as the plane will be a ball of aluminum in a smoking hole with a surviving, functioning seven hundred dollar clock.

    The FAA folks I’ve met have all been decent sorts who put in for their jobs because they like aviation. Granted, there’s always going to be jerks – the FAA employs people, after all – but in the main I don’t anticipate a problem so long as I follow the rules, which are pretty common sense in 99% of cases. I don’t fear a ramp check, for example, as both my plane and myself are current with the appropriate items looked at during one.

    • Tom B says:


      You can get busted on a ramp check for not having a compass correction card. I’ve heard this from someone who got busted for it.

      You can get busted for having a parachute in your airplane, unless it’s stored in such a way that you couldn’t reach it in an emergency.

      Common sense? Seriously?

      • Frank Giger says:

        Why wouldn’t one have a compass correction card?

        Now if it got silly and they took the plane to a compass rose to validate it that would be one thing, but the correction card itself is required.

        What was the punishment?

        • Tom B says:

          He didn’t tell me what the punishment was, but he had become a card-carrying member of the “don’t trust those #*%^@s” club. Hardly productive.

          Yes, the card is required – that’s how he got busted. They’re made of paper and, like so many things in our cockpits (like painted-on placards, too), it had probably just worn away or fallen out of the little slot.

          What’s silly is that I doubt anyone really uses them, and in many cases I’ve seen them with nothing written on them. The reason why, is that, in practice, compass errors are smaller than the error in reading the instrument.

          But, yes, they’re required, and he didn’t have one.

          Of course, you’re also required to ensure that a parachute isn’t available for emergency use (91.307(a)). Yes, I understand what they intended, but it’s still a criminally bad rule (a rule that could kill people). You can get busted for that one, too, if you do the sensible thing and take the chute even though it’s a few days past due, instead of (as required) leaving it on the ground.

          But, maybe they’ve stopped picking nits in the last few years. These things seem to go in cycles.

  6. David Toliver says:

    The perception between “kinder & gentler FAA” and a “more effective FAA” may be with the beholder. As a new pilot 30 years ago, I remembered being lectured by the old timers about dealing with the FAA. Basically it was don’t trust the bas…ds. Horror stories abounded about the ramp check that was out of control – major consequences for minor infractions. My only part 91 ramp check occurred a few years ago. It only took a few minutes and consisted of me displaying a few documents – valid certificate, medical, and airworthyness certificate. A more extensive inquiry may have yielded some minor infraction (probably not though), but that certainly wouldn’t have been very cost effective. It also wouldn’t meet my definition of kinder and gentler.

  7. TPS says:

    MAC it is not accurate that FAA does not have adequate funding for Safety Oversight FlghtStndards has increased it’s ranks of field inspectors significantly over the last 7 years. Seefor yourself. Back 1996 Dave Hinson agreed to remove the “Promote Aviation” as part of the new FAA Mission. He was told this could impact the safety partnership with Industry and users. He replied that FAA knewthat Promoting Aviation would continue because we (FAA) know that promotingaviation makes a sound safe industry. I’m afraid we’re losing that emphasis. We need to stop thinking of users as vistoms and FAA treating users as enemies (bad guys). With FSDO offices having 50 to 70 inspecters per office…I would say that budget is enough to effectively manage a decreasing size of the pilot population. GA Industryis in decline yet the staffing in FAA has increased.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>