FAA- Opening The Book on Leadership Dysfunction

Opening The Book on Leadership Dysfunction Print E-mail
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
 The Federal Aviation Administration issued a press release on 5 September 2008 titled “FAA Announces Results of Compliance Audits, Updates Safety Commitments.”  After reviewing what the FAA spin masters have released, this document should be titled, “Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave.”


The FAA is claiming that the results of its self-directed audit of Airworthiness Directives (ADs) at U.S. air carriers found an overall compliance rate of 98%.  The remaining 2% of audit issues were resolved before the airplanes flew again.  This is truly a remarkable achievement considering that just five months earlier the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, under Rep. James Oberstar’s (D-MN) leadership, revealed that the FAA’s cozy relationship with Southwest Airlines (SWA) allowed the carrier, with FAA complicity, to operate unairworthy aircraft in passenger carrying revenue service. The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General (DOT/IG) estimated that SWA had flown more than six million passengers over the previous nine months on unairworthy aircraft.  This relationship had been going on for a number of years, unchecked, until two FAA whistleblowers managed to bring Congressional attention to the situation.

Gabriel Bruno

As a result of the intense Congressional and media attention brought to the FAA, and its Southwest Regional Office, which also has oversight responsibility for American Airlines (AMR), that carrier grounded hundreds of its aircraft, resulting in thousands of cancelled flights and the stranding of hundreds of thousands of ticket-holding passengers. Apparently, the heat generated in the kitchen by the SWA debacle was too hot for AMR and they decided to try to get ahead of an issue that they knew also affected them.

The FAA embarrassment over this massive disruption to our country’s air transportation system, and still untallied economic damage, prompted FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, Nicholas Sabatini, and his hand-picked Director of Flight Standards, Jim Ballough, to devise a hasty FAA self-audit of air carrier AD compliance. 

Sabatini and Ballough’s performance, under questioning by the Congressmen, was so poor that some committee members even accused them of providing misleading testimony.  Incredibly, Sabatini, testified that the myriad of problems that others had testified to at the hearings were “not evident as [his] level.” Sabatini’s desperate attempt to get himself and Ballough off the hook of gross mismanagement and malfeasance produced the pathetic paperwork AD audit exercise.

Rather than request an independent audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which would have taken control of the results out of their hands, Sabatini and Ballough used the internal, self-controlled audit.  It had to be conducted by the same agency that had just been exposed for complicity in endangering passengers’ lives.  They created an opportunity to fill out their own report card and give themselves all “A” grades, without any credible independent verification.

This paperwork audit called for a 10% sampling of ADs by FAA inspectors with responsibility for air carrier oversight. (See Aviation Safety & Security Digest, ‘Amid Proud Declarations, No Answer About Accountability for Safety’) One problem with this approach is any inspector finding non-compliance with ADs would be admitting to not having done his/her job, and possibly being guilty of the same behaviors exposed during the Congressional hearings.  Also, any non-compliance found and entered into the programmatic maze of the Air Transport Oversight System (ATOS) would create an immense additional workload. The ATOS data entry burden alone has already been testified to consuming 70% to 80% of an inspectors’ time.  Interestingly, Sabatini and Ballough never issued any guidance to these inspectors on what to do if they found the same violations that SWA is being fined $10 million for, and that kicked off this exercise.

The scathing Congressional hearings not only launched the FAA into its predictable damage control activities, they also spurred Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters to commission a panel of experts to explore these issues and provide her with recommendations.  This panel, called the “Independent Review Team” (IRT), just released a report titled, “Managing Risks in Civil Aviation: A Review of the FAA’s Approach to Safety,” dated 2 September 2008.  Secretary Peters has enthusiastically endorsed all of the IRT’s 13 recommendations.

The IRT was comprised of five experts who have impressive credentials, to be sure, but they are all industry insiders. The IRT would have been more balanced if it had included a member with actual internal FAA operational experience within the past ten years. Their recommendations would have been more focused and action oriented with a better understanding of day-to-day life inside the agency and its current problematic culture. Without FAA operational experience, the IRT lacked a full appreciation for the internal factors that bring whistleblowers to critical decisions, and brought Inspectors Bobby Boutris and Douglas Peters to the Congressional testimony table. The report does, however, acknowledge significant disclaimers that the IRT members “could only interview volunteers,” and also that they “cannot produce any statistically significant empirical evidence on prevailing attitudes or practices.” These are big admissions.

It is noteworthy that the IRT’s report, “Appendix 4: List of interviewed stakeholders,” identifies Anthony Broderick as one of the industry experts that was interviewed by the panel. Broderick is a previous FAA Associate Administrator whose “hands-off philosophy” toward air carriers was well-known, and culminated with the 1996 ValuJet tragedy.  Broderick and then-Administrator David Hinson left the agency as a result of this crash, which caused an unprecedented shake-up of the FAA. Not surprisingly, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) identified “lack of FAA oversight” as a contributing factor to that crash.

An internet search reveals that Mr. Anthony Broderick is identified as a “Principal Advisor” to a company called Eclat Consulting, and IRT member J. Randolph Babbitt is listed as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Eclat Consulting on the Eclat website. In his IRT biographical sketch, Mr. Babbitt identified himself as a Partner in the Aviation & Aerospace section of Oliver Wyman; however, there is no mention of the Eclat relationship with Oliver Wyman.

Eclat Consulting claims, “Eclat specializes in the economics of Commercial Aviation.”  Their website also states, “We help position clients in a competitive marketplace and guide them in developing new markets or establishing policy by providing: economic, labor, financial and operational analysis; infrastructure assessment; asset valuations: and forecasts.” 

Secretary Peters was certainly responsible to know this information when commissioning her panel of experts. With the “coziness” between the air carriers and the FAA identified by Congress as a major impediment to effective FAA oversight, it appears that Peters has engaged at least one individual who “specializes in the economics of commercial aviation” for his livelihood to give her counsel on how to structure the regulatory agency that is responsible for oversight of that industry.

This conflict may partially explain the IRT’s rejection of the same two Inspector General (IG) recommendations that the FAA does not want to accept, namely; rotating inspector responsibility for assigned carriers to impede “coziness,” and establishing an independent office out of Sabatini and Ballough’s sphere of control, for inspectors to report safety problems without having to run the gauntlet of career ruin that whistleblowers endure.

It’s significant to note that Congress has also supported these two IG recommendations and has included them in their legislation; H.R.6493-Aviation Safety Enhancement Act of 2008, which passed the House unanimously on July 15, 2008.

These two actions alone would result in a more accountable FAA and in turn, a more accountable industry environment.

Without a truly independent office to handle safety complaints, there can be no real checks and balances on the demonstrated and ongoing FAA problems.

Having so enthusiastically accepted the IRT’s recommendations, Secretary Peters is overruling her own IG and turning her back on the legislation on these two critical safety recommendations.

Airworthiness Directives

Two of the IRT’s 13 recommendations (1 & 2) address ADs. The IRT has taken a fairly comprehensive look at the significance of ADs, what they are, and how they relate to the determination of airworthiness of an aircraft. They have also introduced the concept of “progress-towards-compliance audits,” designed to assist the FAA and carriers to identify and resolve discrepancies and questions in advance of required compliance dates. This is a good concept that can become a helpful practice if integrated into the carriers’ maintenance management practices.

However, the AD problem that surfaced as a result of the whistleblowers disclosures was not one of misunderstanding or AD interpretation. It was a problem of the avoidance of completing the ADs, and the lack of accountability to insure they were complied with.

The IRT report identifies the SWA PMI (Principal Maintenance Inspector) as stating, “I permitted unairworthy SWA aircraft to operate in revenue service, and I was wrong to do so. However, politically, I felt that grounding the SWA aircraft would have negative consequences for the FAA.” This admission speaks volumes. He is saying that FAA appearances and the political effect on his FAA career were more important than living up to his oath, and protecting the public from known risks. Risks known to him and SWA, but not the trusting passengers; citizens, children, and families that bought tickets for safe passage.

The IRT report states, “Safety, which is the absence of risks, is quite different from quality, which is the absence of process errors.” That being said, the IRT’s recommendation on ADs has to do with process. The missing ingredient is the accountability to take action to comply with the ADs; that is the “safety” the public has a right to expect. 

Voluntary Disclosure Programs

Five of the IRT’s 13 recommendations (3, 4, 5, 6 & 7) address Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Programs (VDRP).  The IRT conducted an extensive analysis of the value of VDRPs in today’s complex aviation operating environment.

It should be noted that the analysis overlooked the Service Difficulty Reporting (SDR) system. This program was designed to provide the carriers with a path to report difficulties they encounter during their operations that affect safety.  Unfortunately, an analysis of the SDR program shows that the FAA has been content with a low air carrier compliance rate (20% - 30%), with the program demonstrating that the FAA has a real blind eye for potentially serious trends.  Incredibly, access to the SDR program was recently taken off-line, a further demonstration of FAA intent to preserve the illusion that reported safety issues are sporadic aberrations and not systemic.

The positive value of this type of free-flowing information exchange between the regulated and the regulator cannot be overstated.  The report states, “The IRT emphatically reaffirms the value of these programs.  Equally emphatically, we reaffirm the importance of the controls designed to prevent the erosion of compliance.  For these programs to survive, and for them to operate in a healthy manner, strict and demonstrable adherence to the rules is crucial.”  Regarding the rules of the VDRP game, the IRT goes on to say, “The problem, if there is one, is in the FAA’s adherence to these rules, and not in the nature of the programs, or in the adequacy of the rules themselves.”

This is a very interesting observation, because it also applies to the FAA’s mishandling of its AD responsibilities.  So what is the problem?  The common denominator for adherence to the AD and VDRP requirements is the inspector in the field who is given the oversight responsibility for the proper conduct of these programs.  Why would FAA inspectors, who are safety experts, consistently have problems with executing these programs to the point where they finally have Congressional attention?  The FAA culture in which they must function has to be examined.  The IRT report contains considerable discussion about the culture of the FAA; however, it is the Congressional testimony of whistleblowers Boutris and Peters that hits the nail on the head, describing in the most basic and human terms the difficulties encountered operating in the current FAA culture.  This is an area where having someone with internal FAA operational experience as a member of the team would have been of great benefit to the IRT.

Air Transport Oversight System (ATOS)

Although the IRT met with several hundred inspectors at 15 different field offices who wanted to talk about ATOS, only one of the IRT’s 13 recommendations (number 13) addresses this program, although it governs the great majority of the safety inspectors’ time.  The inspectors expressed great dissatisfaction with multiple aspects of this program, which the IRT recognized, and it referenced GAO Report Number GAO-06-266T, issued in November 2005 and titled, “FAA’s Safety Oversight System Is Effective But Could Benefit From Better Evaluation of Its Programs’ Performance.”

The IRT recommended, “The FAA commission a time-and-motion study of its front line inspection operation, to empirically assess the time-demands of ATOS and other IT [information technology] implementations.”  The FAA accepted this recommendation and said, “The study will commence in March 2009 and be completed within one year.  Time frame for implementation will depend on the recommendations.”

ENOUGH!!!  The FAA has been tweaking ATOS for 10 years, through several GAO reports of its inadequacies, and the agency still can’t get it right. A time-motion study will take up further time at a point where the FAA needs a truly functional safety oversight and inspection system.  The current FAA leadership, namely Sabatini, Ballough and company have proven themselves to be incapable of this in spite of the millions of taxpayer dollars that have been poured into a program that handcuffs and impedes the inspectors’ ability to conduct their safety oversight responsibilities. In short, it is obstructive in its inherent design, and an army of inspectors is locked in irons because of its flaws.

The ATOS program needs an overhaul, not just another ineffective gimmick-ridden rewrite of computer entry codes and a coat of alumigrip paint.  The weight placed on the actual inspector’s findings needs to be increased for analysis.  As it stands, the ATOS program is nothing more than a time consuming administrative processing of information that the air carriers want the FAA to have, and the subsequent FAA rubber-stamping of that information without any verification process.  In other words, it is nothing more than an illusion of an inspection program.  A time-and-motion study will not fix this.

IRT’s Recommendations 8, 9, 10, 11, and12

These remaining recommendations are all variations on the theme of the FAA reviewing itself, recognizing and admitting its own problems, and implementing corrective actions. They amount to a mish-mash of activities that the FAA readily agrees to implement by various dates ranging from 30 December 2008 to before the end of 2010. If the FAA’s demonstrated history of program management under Sabatini is any indicator, the good ideas that are contained in these recommendations will be lost in a muddle of activities, directed by imbedded Sabatini operatives, and result in no real accomplishments.

For there to be any chance of measurable accomplishment, the FAA needs real leadership with integrity. Pseudo-leaders that throw organizational subordinates under the bus and claim that exposed problems weren’t evident at their lofty levels are not compatible with a prescription for organizational success. We’ll check back at the end of 2010.

Depressing Conclusions

There is much more that can be said about the IRT’s report; basically, it falls short of demanding accountability from FAA leadership for the poor state of affairs at the agency that put thousands of passengers at risk and caused untold economic damage to the country.

The IRT’s executive summary blatantly suggests that the 3 April Congressional hearing caused the FAA to “overreact,” and the subsequent AMR groundings were “extraordinary coincidences” that created a “perfect storm” for the FAA.  However, what is extraordinary is offering a suggestion like this to obfuscate the risk posed to thousands of passengers, and the severe disruption and economic damage caused by the FAA leadership. 

What actually happened is that Congress and the public were afforded a rare peek under the covers at the FAA’s malfeasance.  This look wasn’t provided by any of the taxpayer-funded FAA inspection or safety programs, but rather by two FAA whistleblowers who risked their careers to expose the truth.  The FAA management had been successfully suppressing whistleblowers’ attempts for years, which is why establishing an independent office to examine whistleblower complaints is so threatening to the FAA’s upper level management. 

Now that the truth has been partially exposed, the FAA damage control efforts are trying to push the blame as far down in the FAA organization as they can.  Remember Sabatini’s testimony to Congress, “These problems weren’t evident at my level.”  That’s the same vacuous defense that Ken Lay used in the Enron criminal case.  We can’t afford to accept this from Sabatini either.

The IRT did define its task as, “More forward-looking and prescriptive than backward-looking and investigative.” However, you can’t write an effective prescription without identifying and examining the source of the problem. Accountability for problems and identification of effective solutions to the problem can’t be separated. If the source of the problem is not removed, the problem persists, regardless of the prescriptions used to suppress the symptoms.

Because the FAA leadership has so pervasively corrupted the agency and its mission, the anonymity that their bureaucracy normally provides must be removed and they need to be brought out from behind the FAA logo to stand in the light of accountability. By not demanding accountability, Sabatini and company are given a “pass” on gross mismanagement and malfeasance.

The IRT has done an impressive amount of analysis, but its report only opens the book on FAA leadership’s dysfunction. There needs to be clear definitive action taken to re-establish an effective FAA presence. With all of the FAA programs that are being analyzed and tweaked, the leading source of disclosure of safety problems continues to be conscientious FAA whistleblowers.

Byline: Gabe Bruno is a retired FAA manager and is now an independent safety consultant. His 28-year FAA career included serving nine years at FAA Headquarters in Washington DC and also managing two Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs) in the FAA’s Eastern and Southern Regions. He received numerous recognitions including Manager of the Year and Office of the Year awards during his career. He may be contacted at gbruno3@cfl.rr.com. This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 23 September 2008 )


Contrasts well with this Sabatini Speech below

"Compassion Counts"
Robert A. Sturgell, Washington, D.C.
September 25, 2008

FAA Managers’ Association


Thanks, Steve [Baker]. It’s a pleasure to be here. Let’s start things rolling with a clip you’re going to recognize.

[Clip from “A Few Good Men.]

I love that clip. I really love that clip. I tell you:  When it comes to portraying an ugly character, Jack Nicholson is the man.

But I’ll tell you something else. Jack Nicholson’s the man, but the character he’s playing, Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, he’s no leader. There’s no leadership going on there. It’s not leadership by any stretch of the imagination. It takes absolutely no skill to scream and yell or make clever remarks about punch lines at a party.

A few months ago, I called together all of the FAA’s senior executives to make sure we had our eyes on the ball. It was just like here tonight — a meeting of the minds, a chance to recalibrate, to make sure we’ve all got the same “true North” in mind when we talk about “true North.” I called the executives together because as you all know, we’ve been getting hit pretty hard lately. It’s been tough on the Hill. It’s been tough in the press.

What made it toughest of all was that many of our mistakes were self-inflicted wounds. I’m not just talking about the ATO here. Southwest Airlines, the DFW TRACON, contracting irregularities. That’s all stuff where we flat out should just have known better. I mentioned this at the ATO leadership summit, but it’s worth repeating.

I brought in a tough old Marine to talk to the group. Art Athens is a retired colonel who holds a chair in leadership and ethics at the United States Naval Academy. Ramrod straight. No BS. I didn’t know what he was going to say, but he was going to talk to us. He didn’t say a single word about management.

Instead, he talked about leadership — only about leadership. His son was getting ready to go off to war and asked his Dad for advice. Art relayed a message he received from an old gunny many years earlier.

At the core of his message were what he called “the three C’s”:  compassion, courage and competence.

Right off the bat, he said, you’ve got to know your job or be doing everything you can to learn it. That’s competence. Second comes courage. Are you willing to do the right thing even if it costs you personally?

The third C is the one I don’t think any of us were ready for. That third C stuck with me. Compassion. And that’s where he spent most of the message.

What Art had to say was that leadership is all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and walking a mile with him. Call it caring, love, empathy, the adjective is yours to pick.

I used to work for a chief pilot from West Virginia. The laid-back Chuck Yeager type with the drawl. You can just picture him saying “I got this little light up here …” He always said, “Treat everyone with courtesy and respect.” It’s the same message.

So we had a tough old Marine talking about loving your employees. He wasn’t syrupy. And he was by no means weak.

But he was direct. Kind of like the way Reggie White used to blast someone on a tackle and then say, “Jesus loves you, man.”

And I’ll tell you, what Colonel Athens had to say was a whole lot more powerful than Colonel Jessup on the witness stand.

Let’s talk about that video clip. There’s a lot in there we can learn from. Number one, Jessup is arrogant. As far as compassion goes, Jessup isn’t even in the game. There’s no place for that kind of pride in leadership. I’m certainly proud of this organization, but I’m not arrogant about being in charge. It’s a privilege and an honor, but it’s not a right.

Number two, Jessup lacked self-control. He was at the boiling point from the very start. I’ve litigated, and I can tell you that pressing someone’s button is the whole idea. But when you come up against someone who’s completely in control, well, there’s no moving them. Even when the cross-examination started, Jessup was a stick of dynamite looking for an ignition source.

So, always maintain your composure. Don’t react to or tolerate abusive language.

Back to the video for point number three. Jessup also had no respect for authority. Oddly enough, Jessup’s character thrives on getting respect. But he doesn’t show it to the lawyer. He doesn’t show it to the Court. As a lawyer, I’ve seen firsthand that mouthing off to a judge is generally one of the weaker go-to moves out there. Asking a judge, “Who do you think you are?” is a big-time non-starter. Trust me on this one:  the judge knows exactly who he thinks he is.

Number four, he lost sight of his mission. Protect the country. Do a job that others find too hard. Work with people from all walks. Do any of these sound familiar? They’re on the PDs for any number of you.

But Jessup’s job was also to serve the country. More to the point, his job was to serve the people with whom he served. That’s the compassion Art Athens was talking about. And it’s not about giving people whatever they want. It’s not about co-management. It’s about listening. Taking input. Being fair. Doing the right thing. Providing a reasoned response. Be principled in your decision-making.

You know, we’ve gone through a lot together in six years. And during that time, we’ve made some tough calls. But I have tried to make those decisions with the best interests of the taxpayer, the agency and the employee in mind.

Lately, we’ve had a couple of win-wins, like the ATSAP program for controllers and an agreement with AFSCME.

I’m also pleased to announce that we’re about to begin placing automated external defibrillators in FAA facilities with 50 or more employees. That’s something labor and management have been working on jointly for a while. We’re going to put these devices in place over the course of a year and then we’ll take a look at how it’s going. Are the actual costs comparable to our estimates? Are people getting trained in their use?

Eventually, we hope to put them in facilities with 10 or more employees, which will cover about 97 percent of us. We worked this through OsheComm, and I don’t think anyone is getting 100 percent of what they want, but we’ve reached a fair result. Thanks, Ventris.

And I’m confident we’ll get a FAA program going again. And I’d like to see it cover TechOps.

I have another decision to make shortly, on MSS pay. Some won’t like it, but I hope you will understand it. It is about the long-term cost structure of the agency. But it is also about providing a clear path for career progression and incentivizing people into management.

Following our executive meeting I talked about earlier, I committed to having lunch in the cafeteria once or twice a week, just to meet with employees. I’ve been trying to do that, and I’ve eaten the food there, too. It’s been tough, because my schedule is always tight. But I made that commitment, and I try to stick to it. You’d be surprised what I hear, what I learn — sometimes to the dismay of my colleagues on the management team. But I learned a lesson. You’re not going to hear or learn anything eating lunch alone at your desk.

That wasn’t the only pledge I made. I also committed to a weekly broadcast to employees for the web site. That’s been just as tough. Every Tuesday, I’m down in the studio. But it’s about keeping commitments — to my management team, to my employees, to myself. I’d like to see you all find ways to connect with people. Get out of the office. Get on the Ops floor. Get engaged with the operation.

We have a lot of training — new ATCS, new technology. It’s more important than ever to be engaged in the operation and reinforcing the basics. Connect and communicate with the workforce.

Let’s bring this full circle. When we get beaten up on the Hill or in the press, keep your chin up. When people who don’t understand what we do — or those who understand and deliberately mislead — have their say, keep your chin up. We have the toughest system in the world to run, and we’ve got to keep doing our jobs better and better.

We need to keep the focus where it belongs. We’ve gone two years without a fatality in large transport aircraft. Serious runway incursions are at an all-time low. ICAO just completed an audit of our entire system in which we received an unqualified endorsement. We just completed a review of airworthiness directives and found a compliance rate upwards of 99 percent. I challenge any other regulatory agency to make any one of those statements. And the credit for all of that goes to you.

But don’t be satisfied. We’ve got areas to improve — ops errors, efficiency, throughput. And — always — safety. We’re public servants, which means we’re holders of the public trust. We’re known for doing it better, for holding ourselves to a higher standard, and that’s just how it should be.

I’m going to close with this:  I think leadership is the key. I think “compassion” can help us get there. Start looking for ways to engage. Keep a watch on the new generation coming on board. And let’s get there together. This is one thing I do not want to stay in Las Vegas. Take it home. Thanks.