Aviation Safety:

Weaknesses in Inspection and Enforcement Limit FAA in Identifying and Responding to Risks

RCED-98-6: Published: Feb 27, 1998. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 1998.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
(202) 512-4803
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the outcomes of: (1) the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) inspection process in fiscal years (FY) 1990 through 1996 and how this process would be strengthened to better assess and encourage compliance with aviation safety and security regulations; and (2) FAA's enforcement process during this period and how this process could be strengthened to better address potential violations of aviation safety and security safety and security regulations.

GAO noted that: (1) while there are no direct measures of the aviation industry's compliance with aviation safety and security regulations, the results of FAA's inspections provide both an indirect measure of the industry's compliance and an early warning of potential safety and security problems; (2) in FY 1990 through FY 1996, nearly 96 percent of the 2 million inspections conducted by Flight Standards and Security resulted in no reports of problems or violations; (3) GAO questions whether this rate is a meaningful measure of the aviation industry's compliance with regulations for several reasons; (4) many inspectors do not report all problems or violations they observe; (5) many inspections are not thorough or structured enough to detect many violations; (6) FAA's inspection tracking systems do not distinguish major from minor violations; (7) FAA's information on compliance in the aviation industry is thus incomplete and of limited use in providing early warning of potential risks and in targeting inspection resources to the greatest risks; (8) during FY 1990 through FY 1996, FAA inspectors opened nearly 110,000 enforcement cases to follow up on reports of violations from their inspections and from noninspection sources; (9) 45 percent of the 110,000 enforcement cases were initiated as a result of inspections conducted by FAA; (10) FAA inspectors also followed up on reports of violations from outside sources, which accounted for 41 percent of the enforcement cases opened; (11) in the remaining 14 percent of the cases, FAA inspectors followed up on violations reported by other FAA personnel; (12) inspectors exercised discretion in opening enforcement cases in response to reported problems and violations; not all reported problems or violations resulted in enforcement cases; (13) the amount of paperwork and the time needed to reenter inspection results in a separate enforcement database also discouraged inspectors from opening cases; (14) FAA resolved almost 121,000 enforcement cases during this same period, using administrative actions (46 percent), legal actions (34 percent), or no action (19 percent); (15) the resolution could not be determined for 1 percent of the enforcement cases because of missing data; (16) when resolving cases through legal action, FAA's legal staff generally negotiated lower penalties than the agency's inspection staff had recommended; and (17) the impact of FAA's enforcement is difficult to asses because FAA has not followed up on the aviation industry's implementation of corrective actions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA updated the cost estimates for providing interfaces between its various inspection tracking systems and its single enforcement database. FAA concluded that the cost ($800,000) would be reasonable and would result in a more streamlined, user-friendly system. FAA has not implemented this recommendation because of budgetary uncertainties but still hopes to. The second half of this recommendation involved developing a process for distinguishing major from minor enforcement cases. The intent of this recommendation was accomplished by a June 1999 revision to FAA's enforcement guidance to prioritize enforcement cases and to focus agency resources and efforts on identified areas of critical safety and security noncompliance.

    Recommendation: To strengthen FAA's enforcement process and the agency's capacity to better encourage and monitor compliance with aviation safety and security regulations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to take steps to improve the usefulness of FAA's databases for identifying and targeting enforcement resources to the most serious aviation safety and security problems by: (1) updating the cost estimates to directly link FAA's inspection and enforcement tracking systems and moving forward on this initiative if it would prove cost-effective and could streamline the enforcement process; and (2) developing a process for distinguishing major from minor enforcement cases and for focusing FAA's resources in the cases with the greatest potential impact on aviation safety and security.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FAA concurred in part. FAA's Compliance Review Team work group reviewed FAA's existing compliance and enforcement guidance, FAA Order 2150.3A, and concluded that it provided sufficient guidance for better communication between attorney staff and inspectors concerning the status of cases. The work group recommended that a memo be sent to legal staff, managers, and program office staff to reemphasize the procedures and options for communication about the status of cases. The memo was to stress both the responsibility of attorney staff to communicate to regional office and program office staff and the options for inspectors and others for using the Enforcement Information System and contacting attorneys directly to obtain information about enforcement cases. FAA has completed drafting the memo. FAA subsequently decided to address this issue by incorporating changes to the section of FAA Order 2150.A on compliance that deals with communication between inspectors and attorneys. The suggested changes to the FAA Order have been drafted and are undergoing agency review. FAA expects the order to be finalized in the fall 2005. As of August 8, 2007, this had not occurred and the recommendation was closed.

    Recommendation: To strengthen FAA's enforcement process and the agency's capacity to better encourage and monitor compliance with aviation safety and security regulations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to require legal staff to inform inspectors periodically of the status of cases and to explain why penalties are reduced.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FAA concurred in part. FAA has guidance in individual program offices requiring inspectors to report all observed violations and initially responded that it does not believe that agencywide guidance is needed. FAA's Compliance Review Team work group subsequently determined that additional guidance should be included in the agency's compliance and enforcement guidance, FAA Order 2150.3A, to address how inspectors should document instances in which inspectors counsel violators, rather than initiate administrative or enforcement actions. Corresponding changes to the order are expected to be finalized by the fall 2005. As of August 8, 2007, this had not occurred and the recommendation was closed.

    Recommendation: To strengthen FAA's inspection process to provide more complete and accurate information on potential problems in aviation safety and security--so that information can provide early warning of potential risks and serve as a basis for allocating the agency's inspection resources--the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to revise FAA order 2150.3A to require that FAA's inspection staff report all observed problems and violations in their respective program office's tracking system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA's Compliance Review Team workgroup concluded that determining whether violations were major or minor would depend heavily on the risk and whether it was intentional. The workgroup decided instead to prioritize enforcement cases based on criteria developed by each program office, and modified the agency's guidance to emphasize the need to focus resources on areas of critical noncompliance. The new language requires that each program office develop an annual plan that identifies such critical areas and prioritizes related enforcement cases. The managers are to meet annually with the Office of the Chief Counsel to discuss the needs of each program office and to prioritize enforcement resources across program offices. Progress in meeting priorities is to be tracked and adjusted quarterly. However, neither the computerized system to help analyze and prioritize its safety inspections nor its new safety inspection database includes any prioritization of either violations or enforcement cases.

    Recommendation: To strengthen FAA's inspection process to provide more complete and accurate information in potential problems in aviation safety and security--so that information can provide early warning of potential risks and serve as a basis for allocating the agency's inspection resources--the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to develop guidance for inspectors to distinguish major from minor violations, improve FAA's inspection databases to incorporate these distinctions, and develop a plan for focusing on FAA's resources on the violations with the greatest potential impact on aviation safety and security.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 14, 2016

Sep 2, 2016

Aug 8, 2016

Jul 28, 2016

Jul 13, 2016

Jul 7, 2016

Jun 24, 2016

Jun 21, 2016

May 26, 2016

Looking for more? Browse all our products here