Audit Reports

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FAA Oversight Is Not Keeping Pace With the Changes Occurring in the Regional Airline Industry

Requested by the Ranking Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Subcommittee on Aviation
Project ID: 
AV2018012

What We Looked At

Regional air carriers operate over 40 percent of the Nation’s commercial flights, making over 10,000 trips a day. These carriers began operating in the 1970s, primarily to provide flights to cities unable to support major airline service. While it has not suffered a major accident since 2009, the industry has recently undergone significant changes—including consolidations—and changes in requirements for pilots.

In light of these changes, the Ranking Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Subcommittee on Aviation requested that we analyze FAA’s process of identifying periods of growth and determine the Agency’s ability to respond to changes in regional air carrier operations. Accordingly, our audit objectives were to (1) evaluate FAA’s process for identifying periods of transition and growth of regional air carriers and (2) evaluate how FAA adjusts its oversight to respond to changes in regional air carrier operations.

What We Found

FAA’s process for identifying periods of transition and growth at regional air carriers is ineffective in key areas. FAA’s tools to evaluate air carrier risk are confusing and subjective, and limit the Agency’s ability to be proactive and weight specific risks. Furthermore, inspectors are hesitant to use the tool designed to detect potential financial problems because they do not have the knowledge or information they need to evaluate carriers’ financial conditions.

FAA inspectors also do not adjust air carrier surveillance in response to changes because their risk assessment tools are ineffective. Additionally, even when inspectors are able to identify areas of risk, Agency guidance is vague regarding how inspectors should adjust surveillance. Finally, the new oversight system relies heavily on inspector judgement. While sound inspector judgment is crucial for effective oversight, inspectors also need adequate tools and guidance to aid their decision making.

Our Recommendations

We are making 10 recommendations to FAA to improve its risk assessment tools, improve data sharing between offices, and improve the guidance for how inspectors should handle anonymous complaints. FAA concurred with all 10 recommendations.

Recommendations

Open

Closed

No. 1 to FAA

Revise the Safety Assurance System (SAS) risk-assessment tool to include weighted factors for each organizational risk evaluated by inspectors.

No. 2 to FAA

Update the scoring system and instructions in the Financial Condition Assessment Decision Aid to reflect that 10 characteristics are being evaluated.

No. 3 to FAA

Develop and provide additional guidance and training to inspectors to clarify the differences in the choices (word pictures) provided in the decision aids.

No. 4 to FAA

Reevaluate the decision aids to validate that: a. They include the appropriate areas of focus during reviews of the financial condition and transition or growth of regional air carriers; b.The weighting of the focus areas correlates to their potential impact on risks associated with financial distress or rapid growth or downsizing.

No. 5 to FAA

Revise validated guidance to emphasize the importance of completing decision aids periodically for baseline comparisons.

No. 6 to FAA

Implement a retention policy for completed decision aids so they will be available to inspectors for comparison and analysis during risk assessments.

No. 7 to FAA

Develop and provide guidance and training to show inspectors how to detect triggers that require the completion of a decision aid, as well as the importance of using decision aids to adjust surveillance.

No. 8 to FAA

Refine policies and procedures for collecting and analyzing safety data and metrics from regional airlines sector-wide and sharing that information with FAA's Flight Standards Offices.

No. 9 to FAA

Revise Agency guidance on risk-management processes to recommend adjustments to surveillance when the risk score is identified as high or document a reason for not adjusting surveillance given the risk.

No. 10 to FAA

Revise inspector guidance to provide actions inspectors should take after risks are identified through complaints, including reaching out to other offices if necessary and ensuring planned surveillance of the issue is actually completed.