Viewpoint

FAA suffers damning audits

Who watches the watchmen? Well, in US skies it is the DoT’s Office of Inspector General, recently the source of two damning reports about FAA foot-dragging.

The first concerns pilot records and a 2010 law requiring the aviation authority to create a database of training and employment histories for use by airlines when hiring.

Since a significant share of crashes result from human error, the law was seen as an important safety tool for airlines to weed out bad pilots.

Yet five years later there is still no database, and the Inspector General fears that it won’t be fully operational until 2020, in part because the FAA waited until the beginning of this year to discover whether airlines were retaining required records for the database.

The second worry concerns sloppy financial management. In the past decade the FAA’s operations budget has been maintained despite a 19 per cent fall in the amount of air traffic operations it has to handle.

To investigate whether taxpayers were still receiving value for money, the Inspector General focused on the productivity of the FAA’s air traffic control towers, almost two-thirds of which it deemed ‘relatively efficient’.

However, the gap between good and poor performing towers was substantial, with the auditor estimating that the latter had wasted roughly $850m in lost efficiencies between 2008 and 2013.

Among the worst performing hubs were Washington’s Dulles and Ronald Reagan airports, along with Chicago Midway and Seattle Tacoma. Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson, New York LaGuardia and Chicago O’Hare, meanwhile, were judged to be ‘consistently relatively efficient’.

One cause of the problem is that the FAA rarely analyses the reams of data it produces to identify cost savings.

When the Inspector General dived into the numbers it found, for instance, that in 2013 the least efficient hubs were spending more than twice as much per aircraft operation as relatively efficient ones.

In response, the FAA argued that direct comparisons between towers were misleading because of specific extenuating factors such as air traffic volume, airspace complexity, and facility size.

Unimpressed by this argument, the government auditor has requested a revised response by September 20.

Hopefully that’s a date the FAA can stick to.

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