Aviation Safety:

FAA Needs to Strengthen the Management of Its Designee Programs

GAO-05-40: Published: Oct 8, 2004. Publicly Released: Nov 16, 2004.

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The safety of the flying public and the reliability of the nation's aircraft depend, in part, on the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) regulation and certification of the aviation industry. FAA delegates the vast majority of its safety certification activities to about 13,600 private persons and organizations, known as "designees," which are currently grouped into 18 different programs. Among other tasks, designees perform physical examinations to ensure that pilots are medically fit to fly and examine the airworthiness of aircraft. GAO reviewed (1) the strengths of FAA's designee programs, (2) the weaknesses of those programs and factors contributing to those weaknesses, and (3) potential improvements to the programs.

The key strength of FAA's designee programs is their ability to leverage agency resources. Allowing technically qualified individuals and organizations to perform 90 percent of certification activities enables FAA to better concentrate its limited staff resources on the most safety-critical functions, such as certifying new and complex aircraft designs. For the aviation industry, designee programs enable individuals and companies to obtain required FAA certifications--such as approvals of aircraft designs--in a timely manner, thus reducing delays and costs to industry that might result from scheduling direct reviews by FAA. For example, officials from Boeing told us that using designees has added significantly to the company's ability to improve daily operations by decreasing certification time. Inconsistent FAA oversight and application of program policies are key weaknesses of the designee programs. FAA headquarters has evaluated only 6 of the 18 designee programs over the last 7 years. FAA conducted the evaluations on an ad hoc basis and lacks requirements or criteria for periodically evaluating these programs. FAA uses these evaluations to determine whether designee programs are complying with agency policies. In addition, FAA field offices do not always oversee designee activities according to agency policy. For example, a recent FAA study found that inspectors were not reviewing designated pilot examiners' work on an annual basis as policy requires. Potential reasons for inconsistent oversight include (1) incomplete databases that FAA uses to manage its oversight of designees, (2) workload demands for FAA staff that limit the time spent on designee oversight, and (3) the lack of adequate training for FAA staff who oversee designees. While we did not find a direct link between inconsistent oversight of these programs and specific safety problems, the lack of consistent oversight limits FAA's assurance that designees perform their work according to federal standards. Opportunities exist for FAA to improve (1) program oversight to ensure consistent compliance with existing policies by FAA staff and (2) the completeness of databases used in designee oversight. For example, FAA could evaluate more of its field offices and designees--efforts modeled partly on the assessments conducted by some FAA regional offices--to ascertain the extent to which policies are being followed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On March 17, 2006, FAA issued a revised order on designees (VS 1100.2) that requires each service and office to develop and administer an evaluation process for its delegation programs. As of Aug. 2006, the Aircraft Certification Office had completed evaluations of all its designee programs. At that time, Flight Standards had completed audits of 3 designee programs in one region and was using that experience to develop a prototype protocol to evaluate all its designee programs nationwide. Flight Standards has a schedule to complete the nationwide evaluations by the end of FY09. In addition, FAA has begun to survey newly certificated pilots about their training and certification to provide input on designee performance. As of September 2006, the office was in the process of developing a similar survey for newly certificated mechanics.

    Recommendation: To improve management control of the designee programs, and thus increase assurance that designees meet FAA's performance standards, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to establish a program to evaluate all designee programs, placing a priority on those 12 programs that have not been evaluated. At a minimum, the evaluations should examine field office compliance with existing policies, identify root causes of noncompliance with those policies, and establish and monitor corrective action plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On March 17, 2006, FAA issued a revised order on designees (VS 1100.2) that established a Delegation Steering Group with representatives from each office with designee programs. The group had its first meetings in August 2006, and its function is to monitor compliance with the revised designee order, make recommendations to improve the designee programs, and to report to the Office of Aviation Safety management team at least annually. A revised designee management training course for FAA staff was scheduled for October 2006 and a second course by the end of FY 07. In addition, in 2006, FAA deployed an on-line questionnaire to FAA employees and designees to determine the health of the designee processes, with the goal of learning from the field perspective, what works well and what does not.

    Recommendation: To improve management control of the designee programs, and thus increase assurance that designees meet FAA's performance standards, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop mechanisms to improve the compliance of FAA program and field offices with existing policies concerning designee oversight. The mechanisms should include additional training for staff who directly oversee designees. As part of this effort, FAA should identify best oversight practices that can be shared by all FAA program and field offices and lessons learned from the program evaluations and incorporate, as appropriate, suggestions from our expert panel.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On March 17, 2006, FAA issued a revised order on designees (VS 1100.2) that established a Designee Integration User Group to develop a database to track consistent information (including designee performance information) across designee programs. The group completed the first phase of its efforts in September 2006, providing a training registration tool for designees, allowing FAA to keep track of required training. In addition, on October 1, 2006, FAA began charging all designees for the recurrent training provided by FAA.

    Recommendation: To improve management control of the designee programs, and thus increase assurance that designees meet FAA's performance standards, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to enhance the effectiveness of FAA designee oversight tools, such as databases, by improving the consistency and completeness of information on designees' activities and performance and FAA oversight. To the extent necessary, FAA should examine charging fees to designees to help pay for the costs of such efforts. If FAA identifies a need for such fees, the agency should request the Congress to authorize them.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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