GETTING TO YES
WHY THE FAA’S NEW “COMPLIANCE PHILOSOPHY” REPRESENTS A TECTONIC SHIFT IN ATTITUDE FOR AN AGENCY DESPERATELY IN NEED OF ONE
FAA MISSION STATEMENT: We’re not happy until you’re not happy.
You can buy a T-shirt with this not-so-subtle jab printed on the front. It’s an old joke, but I’m starting to think it might be time to retire this one from the Sporty’s catalog.
In 2015, in a magnanimous effort to foster a “just culture” at a federal agency known among pilots for its heavyhandedness, the FAA implemented its “compliance philosophy.” The idea was that pilots who make honest mistakes shouldn’t have the FAR/AIM thrown at them. Instead, the FAA would try to learn from these unintended errors to correct any underlying issues. While this new approach means the FAA will no longer bring the hammer down for inadvertent violations, the agency remains committed to “vigorously enforcing” those involving intentionally reckless behavior, falsification and repeat failures.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has taken a while for inspectors in the field to fully grasp what their employer is trying to accomplish with the course reversal brought about by the compliance philosophy. But we’re starting to hear of instances of the FAA brass in Washington overruling inspectors and other officials by changing judgments, rescinding certificate actions and even refunding fines.
One of the most high-profile cases we know of involved well-known aviation educator and Flying columnist John King. After an isolated seizure in 2014, John spent thousands of dollars on medical tests to convince the FAA aeromedical branch in Oklahoma City that he was fit to fly — to no avail. He was prepared to spend many more thousands on a legal fight, but before his case reached a National Transportation Safety Board law judge John sent a letter to the FAA’S associate administrator for safety reminding her about the agency’s new just culture and philosophy of “getting to yes” when reaching an obstacle. Lo and behold, less than a month after John sent the email to the associate administrator he got his medical back.
When Harrison Ford screwed up and landed his Aviat Husky on a taxiway at John Wayne Airport in California, many pilots assumed the FAA would yank his ticket. Instead, the agency determined no enforcement action was necessary. Ford’s lawyer noted that the FAA acknowledged his client’s “long history of compliance with the federal aviation regulations and his cooperative attitude during the investigation.”
Some took to social media to complain that Ford got off lightly only because he’s rich and famous. Believe me, if the same thing happened a few years ago the outcome would have been far different.
What’s changed is the compliance philosophy. It’s like a breath of fresh air for pilots. And while the FAA no doubt is still infected with its share of power-tripping inspectors who want to punish any pilot who so much as deviates one dot off course on an ILS, the evidence shows that these wannabe sheriffs wield far less power thanks to the sane and rational thinking emanating from 800 Independence Ave.
I don’t know who at the FAA came up with the idea, but they deserve a raise — or at least a heaping of praise from a grateful pilot population. Compliance philosophy is wonderful. Let’s just hope it lasts. Stephen Pope / Editor-in-chief