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Highlights

Among its responsibilities for aviation safety, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues thousands of certificates and approvals annually. These certificates and approvals, which FAA bases on its interpretation of federal standards, indicate that such things as new aircraft, the design and production of aircraft parts and equipment, and new air operators are safe for use in the national airspace system. Past studies and industry spokespersons assert that FAA's interpretations produce variation in its decisions and inefficiencies that adversely affect the industry. GAO was asked to examine the (1) extent of variation in FAA's interpretation of standards for certification and approval decisions and (2) views of key stakeholders and experts on how well these processes work. To perform the study, GAO reviewed industry studies and reports and FAA documents and processes; convened a panel of aviation experts; and interviewed officials from various industry sectors, senior FAA officials, and unions representing FAA staff.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 1. To ensure that FAA actions contribute to more consistent decisions and more efficient certification and approval processes, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to determine the effectiveness of actions to improve the certification and approval processes by developing a continuous evaluative process and use it to create measurable performance goals for the actions, track performance toward those goals, and determine appropriate process changes. To the extent that this evaluation of agency actions identifies effective practices, consider instituting those practices agency wide.
Closed - Implemented
In October 2010, GAO reported that FAA had taken action to address variation in decisions and inefficiency in its certification and approval processes but without outcome-based performance measures and a continuous evaluative process to determine if these actions are having their intended effects. GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to determine the effectiveness of actions taken to improve the certification and approval processes by developing a continuous evaluative process and use it to create measurable performance goals for the actions, track performance toward those goals, and determine appropriate process changes. To the extent that this evaluation of agency actions identifies effective practices, consider instituting them agency wide. On October 1, 2011 FAA implemented new metrics that provide the ability to track process performance and product conformity. These metrics will allow FAA to set measurable performance goals necessary to determine the effectiveness of the certification and approval processes and assist it in deciding the appropriate actions necessary to address systemic issues that may negatively impact certain processes and their outcomes.
Department of Transportation 2. To ensure that FAA actions contribute to more consistent decisions and more efficient certification and approval processes, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to develop and implement a process in Flight Standards to track how long certification and approval submissions are wait-listed, the reasons for wait-listing them, and the factors that eventually allowed initiation of the certification process. Use the data generated from this process to assess the extent of wait-listing delays and to reallocate resources, as appropriate, to better meet demand.
Closed - Implemented
GAO reported in October 2010 that FAA's Flight Standards and Aircraft Certification Services notify applicants for certification services as to whether resources are available to begin work on their projects. However, while Aircraft Certification tracks in a national database how long individual submissions are wait-listed, Flight Standards does not track wait-listed submissions and, therefore, is unaware how long projects are wait-listed and unable to reallocate resources to better meet demand for certification services. Further, industry stakeholders face uncertainty with respect to any plans or investments that depend on obtaining a certification in a timely manner. GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to develop and implement in Flight Standards a process to track how long certification and approval submissions are wait-listed, the reasons for wait-listing them, and the factors that eventually allowed initiation of the certification process. In October 2011, FAA indicated that it had altered the software in Flight Standards' Certification Service Oversight Process (CSOP) database to designate when certification submissions are wait-listed. The database now tracks how long certification submissions are wait-listed. As a result, FAA now has the capability to track how long certification submissions are waitlisted and reallocate resources, as appropriate, to better meet demand.

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