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Monday, June 5, 2023

FAA Names Independent Safety Review Team as Aviation Safety Back in the Spotlight

FAA's announcement follows an Office of Inspector General review prompted by a December 2020 Senate Committee report that detailed significant lapses in aviation safety oversight and leadership at the FAA.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has named an independent safety review team to further examine ways to enhance safety and reliability in the nation’s air traffic system. After a thorough assessment, the group will present concrete recommendations on how the agency can advance air traffic safety.

“We are committed to maintaining the safest period in U.S. aviation history,” Acting Administrator Billy Nolen said. “This team will strengthen our ongoing safety efforts and identify specific investments we can make to bolster the National Airspace System.” 

The announcement of the new FAA National Airspace System Safety Review Team follows a March safety summit where the FAA convened safety officials from across the aviation industry. During the summit, the group focused on several recent incidents, many of which occurred during takeoffs or landings at busy airports. 

The Safety Review Team will begin its work in May and complete its work by October 2023 with recommended actions the FAA can take to enhance safety.

In the weeks since the Safety Summit, the agency has moved forward to enhance safety, including issuing a safety alert to airlines, pilots and others reminding them to remain vigilant during taxi, takeoff and landing. Meanwhile, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization has taken several actions, including ensuring that supervisors devote their full attention to the operation and airfield during peak traffic periods at each facility; and the FAA’s airports division held a seminar on how to implement Safety Management Systems. 

The National Airspace System Safety Review Team Members include:

  • Former NASA Administrator and astronaut Charles Bolden Jr. 
  • Former Air Line Pilots Association, International President Captain Tim Canoll
  • Former National Air Traffic Controllers Association Executive Vice President Patricia Gilbert
  • Former FAA Chief Operating Officer David Grizzle 
  • Former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta 
  • Former NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt 

The announcement follows an Office of Inspector General (OIG) report into the FAA’s Office of Investigations and Professional Responsibility (AXI) which conducts administrative investigations and special inquiries on FAA employees and contractors suspected of violating Agency orders, regulations, and policy. The Federal Aviation Administrator asked OIG to conduct a review of AXI following a December 2020 Senate Committee report that detailed significant lapses in aviation safety oversight and leadership at the FAA.

OIG found that AXI’s guidance overlaps with and contradicts FAA’s guidance, potentially leaving investigators unclear about their responsibilities. An FAA directive also currently prohibits investigators from concluding whether employees actually engaged in misconduct, which senior AXI officials believe would make their reports more effective. Per the request of the Administrator, OIG obtained training records to determine if investigators received the necessary indoctrination training. However, the watchdog found that AXI’s electronic training system records were not current, making it difficult to track whether agents are fully trained on proper investigative techniques and protocols.

In addition, OIG said AXI lacks internal controls to ensure the appropriate official always reviews and signs investigation reports. As a result, sensitive investigation reports could be issued without management’s awareness. Field investigators also lack clear guidance on referring criminal cases to OIG, and AXI does not have internal controls to ensure that it accounts for investigative requests that it rejects or that do not fall under its authority. 

Finally, OIG found that AXI’s policies, procedures, and practices do not comply with Federal or AXI standards for program reviews, which hinders its ability to ensure investigators meet program requirements, help FAA take effective corrective action against employees who engage in misconduct, and prevent errors from reoccurring.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued a statement saying that a House Republicans proposal could jeopardize transportation safety, including in the skies. DOT says that “while the President’s Budget details a plan to invest in transportation safety and infrastructure, House Republicans’ proposal to cut a broad range of critical programs by 22% would shut down services at 375 federally-staffed and contract Air Traffic Control Towers across the country—undermining safety at one third of all U.S. airports—and increase wait times at security checkpoints by over two hours at large airports across the country”.  

DOT adds that the proposal would also “lead to nearly 7,500 fewer rail safety inspection days and over 30,000 fewer miles of track inspected annually” at a time when bipartisan Senators are calling for more rail inspections.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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