Aviation Safety: FAA's Office of Aviation Safety Should Take Additional Actions to Ensure Its Workforce Has Needed Skills

GAO-21-94 Published: Nov 09, 2020. Publicly Released: Nov 09, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Federal Aviation Administration safety inspectors and engineers work to ensure airlines are safe and that aircraft are designed and built to meet flight safety standards.

More than half of the FAA's safety inspector and engineer workforces will be eligible to retire by 2025. In addition, these workforces must keep pace with changing technology, new data-driven oversight methods, and more. But, the FAA doesn't regularly assess these workforces to find the areas where needed skills are lacking. Assessments could help better determine hiring and training needs.

We recommended that the FAA perform such assessments and align training with its needs.

Two passenger airplanes parked at a terminal with an airplane overhead in the sky.

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What GAO Found

The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Office of Aviation Safety (AVS) has started to identify the critical competencies (i.e., skills, knowledge, abilities, and behaviors) that its inspector and engineer workforces need to oversee the safety of the aviation industry, as described in the figure below; but it does not assess organization-wide competency gaps in these workforces on a recurring basis. AVS identified, for example, data analytics, systems thinking, and risk-based decision-making as competencies engineers need to perform safety oversight.

Responsibilities of Inspectors and Engineers for Overseeing Safety of Aviation Industry Segments

Responsibilities of Inspectors and Engineers for Overseeing Safety of Aviation Industry Segments

AVS officials told GAO that managers in offices located across the country individually assess whether their respective employees have the skills needed to carry out their responsibilities. This approach does not provide AVS an organization-wide view of competency gaps. Performing recurring, organization-wide competency gap assessments is consistent with GAO's strategic workforce planning principles and federal Standards for Internal Control. Without information on the extent to which its inspectors and engineers possess critical competencies, AVS is limited in its ability to implement appropriate strategies for addressing organization-wide gaps in critical skills such as data analytics.

AVS takes steps to train inspectors and engineers on skills to carry out their safety work but has not assessed the office's training curricula on a recurring basis. Training for inspectors and engineers includes extensive introductory curricula covering general and job-specialty courses, recurrent training, and on-the-job training. AVS has policies for routinely evaluating individual training courses and incorporating improvements. However, it does not assess on a recurring basis whether the training curricula as a whole adequately provide employees with needed competencies. Recurring comprehensive reviews are consistent with key training guidance. Without recurring assessments of the curricula, AVS does not have the ability to identify whether there are gaps within the training, such as on oversight activities related to new technologies, or whether critical competencies necessary for carrying out its safety mission are being sufficiently emphasized.

Why GAO Did This Study

FAA's aviation safety workforce is vital to ensuring that the agency fulfills its mission to provide a safe and efficient national airspace system. With the challenges of a large number of potential retirements on the horizon and the introduction of new aviation technologies, FAA must ensure that safety inspectors and engineers possess skills needed for effective oversight as well as for a variety of highly technical skills in aerospace technology.

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included a provision for GAO to report on the workforce and training needs of AVS. This report addresses, among other things, the extent to which AVS (1) assesses competency gaps in its inspector and engineer workforces and (2) ensures its training program provides these workforces with needed competencies.

GAO analyzed AVS's workforce planning and training documentation, and interviewed officials from AVS and representatives from aviation industry associations and FAA labor groups.

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GAO is making two recommendations to FAA's Office of Aviation Safety to assess, on a recurring basis: (1) organization-wide competency gaps for its inspector and engineer workforces and (2) training curricula for these workforces. FAA concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Aviation Safety The Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety should assess organization-wide gaps in identified critical competencies for the Office of Aviation Safety's inspector and engineer workforces on a recurring basis. (Recommendation 1)
In September 2022, FAA's Office of Aviation Safety (AVS) provided information on its efforts to identify technical competencies that its engineer and inspector workforces need to carry out their jobs. Within AVS, the Aircraft Certification Service anticipates completing the identification of technical competencies for its employees by spring 2023, and the Flight Standards Services does not yet have an estimated completion date for identifying competencies for its employees. AVS has not yet taken steps to identify the competencies that its inspector and engineer workforces possess, which is a necessary component of identifying competency gaps. We will continue to monitor FAA's progress in implementing this recommendation.
Aviation Safety The Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety should assess training curricula for the Office of Aviation Safety's inspector and engineer workforces on a recurring basis to ensure that training courses as a whole align with critical competencies needed to address agency mission and goals. (Recommendation 2)
In July 2022, GAO contacted FAA to determine if the agency had made any progress in implementing this recommendation. GAO is awaiting FAA's response and will update the status of this recommendation accordingly.

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