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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

FAA Lacks Controls Necessary to Ensure Hazardous Materials Compliance

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lacks the training and guidance needed to ensure the safe transport of hazardous materials on US air carriers, according to a recent audit by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General IG).

The FAA established the Hazardous Materials Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (HM VDRP) in 2006 to enable air carriers to voluntarily disclose violations of specific hazardous materials regulations without receiving civil penalties. HM VDRP requires close monitoring by the FAA to identify safety risks and ensure the program is not misused.

DOT’s IG concluded, however, that, “FAA does not have an adequate framework to carry out the HM VDRP effectively.”

Although the FAA requires air carriers to identify and complete comprehensive fixes, the audit discovered that in 65 percent of the closed cases the IG reviewed, the FAA did not obtain sufficient evidence that air carriers fixed reported problems as required in HM VDRP.

Moreover, the auditors noted three of these cases involved shipping lithium batteries on a passenger aircraft, which can pose a significant safety risk. For example, an air carrier disclosed that it transported a shipment of primary lithium batteries on a passenger aircraft, even though the shipment was marked “forbidden for transport aboard passenger aircraft.”

The audit also stated that between 1991 and 2014, lithium batteries were involved in over 70 aircraft incidents involving extreme heat, smoke, fire or explosion in aviation cargo and passenger baggage. Specifically, in 2010, a final investigation report determined that improperly declared lithium batteries may have caused a fire resulting in the crash of a United Parcel Service Boeing 747-400 aircraft in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The Inspector General determined the FAA’s HM VDRP lacks an effective oversight process to ensure the program operates as intended. In fact, the agency’s guidelines for how the program should be administered have not been updated since 2006.

Consequently, FAA staff use their own judgment to manage the program, leading to differences in how “serious violations” are defined and how repeat violations and violations outside of the program are addressed.

The FAA is also missing out on opportunities to identify trends that represent safety risks by combining HM VDRP data with other data, such as compliance reports. The FAA said the need to maintain confidentiality about the identity of the air carriers that use the VDRP process makes it difficult to combine data.

In order to reduce safety risks and encourage compliance with regulations, the IG provided several recommendations to the FAA, including requiring air carriers to provide the FAA with sufficient evidence of completion of comprehensive fixes and self-audits.

DOT’s IG provided a draft of the report to the FAA on January 28, 2015. The FAA concurred with 8 of the 9 recommendations, and partially concurred with the recommendation to develop an automated system, such as a website, to allow air carriers to report potential violations under the Hazardous Materials Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program.

The FAA plans to implement the recommendations it concurred with by December 31, 2015, but noted that the recommendation it partially concurred with might be delayed due to resource limitations.

“Until these steps are taken, FAA will not be able to maximize the potential for the HM VDRP to reduce safety risks in the National Airspace System,” the IG concluded.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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