FAA tries ‘driving a stake’ through reporter’s heart
The long battle for information from America’s aviation regulator.
It took the Federal Aviation Administration more than two-and-a-half years to reply to one of our freedom of information requests, filed while we worked on our investigation Broken Dreams: the Boeing 787. We’re still waiting on another, which we’re told will come in July. That will be a three-year wait. It’s pretty clear the agency is no friends of reporters.
“Sigh. I thought we’d driven a stake [or maybe even a steak] through Mother Sheila’s heart … but no,” writes Les Dorr, one of the FAA’s media guys.
“Mother Sheila” is Sheila Kaplan, formerly of Mother Jones magazine, now with StatNews.com. She was producing an investigative TV piece with Dan Rather on the 787 in 2007 and was asking numerous questions. “I told her, enough already!” wrote Dorr to his colleagues.
I showed Kaplan the comments and she was unsurprised. “The FAA’s reluctance to answer questions about its oversight problems with Boeing is well-known.”
“As a reporter, I don’t care what PR people say about me. But, as a frequent flier, I truly hate to travel on airlines overseen by people who are dumb enough to put these kinds of comments in writing.”
The FAA had no comment, but pointed out that Mr Dorr is not responsible for overseeing airline safety.
Twelve viewers, 8 of them fish
Kaplan and Rather’s show generated lots of email chatter at the FAA.
“I am getting more and more concerned about the report that Sheila Kaplan is preparing on the 787 certification,” wrote Ali Bahrami, the regulator who finally signed off the “Dreamliner”.
“I am not sure where all this will end up taking me.”
After the programme was broadcast, FAA special assistant Julie Kitelinger concluded “it wasn’t very well done”, but it generated national attention and “a lot of reporters started submitting FOIA [freedom of information] requests” straight afterwards.
Dorr also snipes that the programme, “probably has about 12 viewers in Seattle, and 8 of those are fish”.
In the face of such negative publicity, Bahrami rallied the troops. “Hang in there,” he wrote. “We are going to come out looking even more credible … This is a great learning opportunity for us all.”
“It is hard to believe that a single person could cause this much chaos in an organisation,” he wrote, presumably with reference to the whistleblower featured in the show, Vince Weldon.
Boeing’s battle between quality and schedule
The papers prove that the questions Kaplan was asking questions were hard for the FAA engineers to answer.
“We do not know what rules will ultimately be applied to lightning protection on the 787,” Mike Dostert conceded privately to his FAA colleagues after a question from Kaplan back in October 2007.
Whistleblower Weldon had been calling into question the safety of FAA and Boeing’s solutions to the carbon composite conundrum.
It all supports the theory, put to me by more than one Boeing engineer, that the company raced into building an all-composite fuselage for the 787, and only thought through all the engineering implications later.
The Boeing old-school ties grumble that in the New Boeing, marketing and sales people have a lot more influence than in the past.
Conflicts of interest
The rest of the documents the FAA has released are interesting too. The regulator delegates its responsibility for hands-on regulation to Boeing engineers. The papers show some of those guys were complaining about too much pressure coming from their Boeing bosses, who wanted them to hurry up and sign things off.
Many Boeing engineers we spoke to complained of this pressure. The old refrain was, “quality is king, but schedule is god!” That’s the problem – a regulator-engineer is stuck in the middle between the FAA, where the stated priorities are safety and quality, and the Boeing business, where quality, safety, schedule and profit are all jostling for priority.
Read original documents here:
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The relationship between the FAA and the businesses it regulates is even more problematic when you see how FAA officials, like the Director of the Aircraft Certification Service Dorenda Baker, refer to such companies as “customers”. Is the FAA regulating aviation companies or selling them a service?
The regulator says that it may have referred to companies we regulate as customers, “but more frequently we identify them as applicants or stakeholders. However, the specific term used does not alter the regulatory relationship. The FAA conducts its oversight of industry in accordance with federal law and FAA policy”.
In 2007, when the FAA was working to delegate greater authority to Boeing, Philip Forde in the Seattle certification office reported to headquarters that Boeing was “frustrated by some of the strict procedures” that hamper their production.
Regulator-engineers who are on the shop floor, known in the jargon as Authorised Representatives (ARs), are supposed to be wearing their regulator hats, but they’re also Boeing employees. So what do they do when, as is recorded in these papers, their managers complain that they are slowing things down?
One of these guys claims he was ridiculed and nicknamed “The Bottleneck” because he was such an obstacle to getting things done to Boeing’s schedule.
Another complained he was “talking to a brick wall” when he raised his concerns. We also read how the same engineer stormed out of a meeting because his Boeing managers wouldn’t listen to his concerns.
It all makes sense when you put it into a bit of context. This was 2010, when the much-hyped 787 “Dreamliner” was already years delayed and several billion dollars over budget and becoming a costly embarrassment for Boeing. The company was under huge pressure to get it out of the hangar doors, off to the airlines and into the air. After all, they’d promised to have it ready to go by the Beijing Olympics, two years earlier.
Boeing’s 787 battery: Problems from the start
The papers also show how, despite all the complaints from the ARs, the FAA remains deeply committed to the delegation system.
“It’s really good to be back working with the FAA again… I’m really anxious to dig in and move us forward on the path to increased delegation,” writes a Boeing employee [name redacted] to Ali Bahrami in October 2007.
Bahrami replies that “you are going to have a very important role within the company. We are going to be relying on you to ensure that the needed cultural change does occur and will continue to be the operating norm. You can rely on my support”.
The FAA told Al Jazeera that delegation “leverages limited FAA resources and can respond to changes in workload and industry needs”, and that the system is “a critical component of our safety system; therefore we impose the highest technical and ethical standards on our designees in order to ensure public, congressional, industry, and FAA confidence”.
The FAA commitment to delegation came through in the NTSB hearings after the 787 grounding in 2013. Bahrami and Baker fiercely defended the system, saying it works well and they’re simply not equipped to regulate by themselves. That is an odd sort of reassurance.
More broadly, when you think of the recent and ever-widening emissions scandal that began at Volkswagen, and of the horsemeat scandal in British food regulation and of the countless other failures of government regulation, you have to wonder whether the light touch really is the right touch.