FAA Flies in the Face of Common Sense

Grounding planes for no good reason.

In an article "American Airlines to cite FAA for flight fiasco," Reuters reports:

American Airlines is poised to say in a report to be delivered on Friday that it wouldn't have had to cancel over 3,000 flights last month if a tentative agreement it had with local aviation officials hadn't been overruled, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The report will say that the carrier thought it had a "hand-shake" pact with regional Federal Aviation Administration managers, through which it meant to repair wiring systems on its MD-80 planes on a schedule that would not have forced it to cancel flights, which left over 300,000 passengers stranded last month.  But FAA headquarters overruled those local officials and pressed forward with a tougher enforcement plan literally overnight, the report said, according to the Journal.


There's always a tradeoff between regulation and operations.  The FAA is responsible for enforcing regulations designed to ensure aircraft safety, but people forget that all a bureaucracy can do is shuffle paper.  When the paper is not to their liking, bureaucracies tend to have hissy-fits and throw their weight around.

We see this most vividly in general aviation.  Owner-pilots are not generally all that good at paper work, but they quickly learn that to the FAA, the paper is more important than the plane.

If you look in the sales ads of aviation magazines, you'll occasionally see planes for sale which have lost their log books.  In general, a paperless plane is worth roughly 1/4 of what it would be worth with an up-to-date log book.

The log book allows the owner to prove that the airplane is "airworthy," which means that it can be legally flown.  If the paperwork is in order, the plane can be flown regardless of the actual state of the plane.  If the paperwork is not in order, it doesn't matter what shape the plane is in, it can't be flown.  Such is the mind of the bureaucracy.

Who declares whether the paperwork is correct or not?  The bureaucrats.  The more paper they are able to require, the more bureaucrats they get to hire to check it.  The article goes on:

The report, to be delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation, is also expected to say that FAA officials did not check any of the affected planes or raise doubts about the initial wiring work until March 2008, the Journal reported.

The FAA issued an airworthiness directive which stated that certain wiring had to be inspected.  American is known in the business for excellent maintenance; there's no suggestion that they were cutting corners.  The question arises, how fast must the inspections be done?

American would have clearly preferred that these inspections be done as part of the normal maintenance cycle.  That is, they would inspect the wiring as each plane came in for whatever routine maintenance it would normally need.  That way, the only extra cost would be the cost of having an FAA-licensed mechanic look at the wiring in addition to whatever else he was already doing, maybe an extra half-hour per plane.  Not only that, doing the inspections in an orderly, scheduled manner would lead to better inspections.

The second worse procedure would be to bring each plane into the hanger just for that inspection.  Airlines don't have many spare airplanes because they cost tens of millions of dollars; an airline can't afford to have extra capacity just sitting around not earning its keep.

Taking a plane or planes out of service for unscheduled maintenance is costly both in dollars and in customer goodwill; we've all sat and fumed in airports while the mechanics try to get our plane back in the air.  Not only that, there are a limited number of maintenance facilities which are staffed with people who are licensed to perform that particular inspection.

Although the article didn't give details, it seems that American had worked out a "hand shake" agreement with the local FAA people that would let them get their paperwork in order without canceling flights.  Now, if the potential problem was something that could cause the plane to drop out of the sky, this would have been a bad call; but it wasn't.

As far as we can tell, this wiring issue had a measurable but vanishingly small possibility of causing a minor fault that could lead to damage to the plane, but not actually hurt anyone.  So the issue, rationally speaking, wasn't worth hitting the panic button over.  American Airlines and the local FAA office sat down and figured out a common-sense plan to do what needed to be done as quickly as reasonable, and with the least amount of chaos.

What happened next was the worst possible outcome for American - the bureaucrats at FAA headquarters overruled their field office and grounded the airplanes until they could get the paperwork fixed.  300,000 passengers, roughly 0.1% of the population of the United States, were stranded.

It's long been the case that air travel is safer than driving, so anything that causes people to drive who would otherwise fly leads directly to unnecessary deaths.  With so many people delayed at the airport, hundreds if not thousands of would-be passengers no doubt got sick of waiting, and took to cars to get where they had to go.

Any extra automotive deaths should clearly be charged to the FAA, but being a bureaucrat means never having to say you're sorry.  By taking a stupid and unnecessary action, the FAA not only didn't make us any safer, they actually killed people.  Do you think anyone there lies awake at night feeling guilty?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
Surely the 'watergate question' applies: what did American know about the FAA requirement for wiring inspection and when did they know it? For sure, they likely worked out a local handshake deal (of the Monty Python nudge, nudge wink, wink variety) but the only reason for that was because they'd agreed to flout the rules. All parties knew what the actual legal requirement was and the FAA ain't wrong - unless of course the taxpayers are happy to have no ultimate oversight of how the rules are applied - on the ground, and in the air.
Ian Goold
May 6, 2008 5:36 AM
The real question is, what's the severity of the wiring issue? From what I've read, it's relatively trivial, and is extremely unlikely to cause any real problem. In that case, even if American was violating FAA regs, this sort of catastrophic system shutdown was a gross overreaction. Maybe they should pay a fine or something, and some people be fired; but to inconvenience millions for basically nothing, is ridiculous.
May 6, 2008 10:00 AM
Umm - that would be 0.1% of the US population, not 1%.
May 6, 2008 4:29 PM
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