FAA Updates Its Compliance Philosophy: A Move in the Right Direction?

The FAA has issued Order 8000.373 effective June 26, 2015 to explain its current compliance philosophy. That is, as the FAA explains it, its "strategic safety oversight approach to meet the challenges of today's rapidly changing aerospace system." What does that mean? Well, as the regulator of the aviation and aerospace communities, the FAA is charged with establishing regulatory standards to ensure that operations in the National Airspace System are conducted safely. And as we all know, compliance with those regulatory standards is mandatory.

However, not only does the FAA expect us to comply with the regulations, but it also believes that we have "a duty to develop and use processes and procedures that will prevent deviation from regulatory standards." Thus, we are required to conduct ourselves in a way that not only complies with the regulations, but that will also ensure that deviations are prevented. Sounds great, until something (e.g. a deviation) happens. Then what? In the past, the result was typically unpleasant. But that may be changing.

According to the FAA's new philosophy, "[W]hen deviations from regulatory standards do occur, the FAA's goal is to use the most effective means to return an individual or entity that holds an FAA certificate, approval, authorization, permit or license to full compliance and to prevent recurrence." This appears to be a shift from the FAA's past compliance philosophy. At least from my perspective, in the past the FAA's response to violations has leaned heavily toward enforcement and punitive action (e.g. certificate suspensions and revocations). And that approach never made sense to me.

If we truly want to encourage compliance and ensure that a certificate holder is safe, why would we want that certificate holder to be sitting on the ramp and out of the system for 30-180 days or longer with a suspended certificate? Wouldn't it make more sense to educate certificate holders and do what may be necessary to get them back into compliance and in a position where future compliance is more likely?

The FAA's current policy appears to be a step in this direction, at least on paper. The Order explains that

The FAA recognizes that some deviations arise from factors such as flawed procedures, simple mistakes, lack of understanding, or diminished skills. The Agency believes that deviations of this nature can most effectively be corrected through root cause analysis and training, education or other appropriate improvements to procedures or training programs for regulated entities, which are documented and verified to ensure effectiveness.

Sounds to me like the FAA is talking about letters of correction with remedial training. I think that's a good thing. The Order also notes that "[M]atters involving competence or qualification of certificate, license or permit holders will be addressed with appropriate remedial measures, which might include retraining or enforcement." Here again, the concept of retraining rather than enforcement (which was typically revocation in cases involving alleged incompetence or lack of qualification) appears to more appropriately address the situation in a more positive and productive manner. Maybe not in all cases, but hopefully more cases than in the past.

Of course, this doesn't mean that certificate and civil penalty actions will go away. If a certificate holder fails or refuses to take steps to remediate deviations or is involved in repeated deviations then enforcement may result. That makes sense. Additionally, in those situations where a certificate holder's conduct was intentional or reckless, the FAA indicates that it will pursue "strong enforcement." Also not a surprise.

Although this appears to be a positive shift in the FAA's philosophy/national policy, the rubber really hits the runway with the inspectors at the FSDO level. Will this policy shift actually trickle down? I hope so. But only time will tell.