The FAA’s Aviation Safety division has a shrinking staff due to federal budget cuts, and so it is betting on less manpower-intensive risk-based surveillance programs to help inspectors keep tabs on aviation businesses. An unflattering audit of one of the FAA’s most extensive risk-based programs—oversight of some 4,800 repair stations—suggests that the agency’s bet is a risky one.
A recent Transportation Department Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) report found that the FAA’s shift to a risk-based system is suffering from major systemic flaws. The OIG also found that foreign repair stations are not subjected to a risk-based approach at all.
The FAA began shifting its repair station oversight to a risk-based system in 2007. The goal was to collect data on a predetermined set of factors and use them to identify specific areas of risk. Inspectors would then focus on those areas to ensure repair stations were addressing known issues.
The agency developed two primary tools for inspectors: the Repair Station Assessment Tool (RSAT) and the Risk Management Process (RMP). Designed to help inspectors collect data, analyze findings and determine risk, most inspectors say the tools are either inadequate or of no use at all.
The Web-based RSAT is a spreadsheet of the 16 inspection elements the FAA established for repair stations. Inspectors can update data only once per year, however, which poses a challenge to making timely adjustments to risk factors, such as when something happens a few months after the most recent data update.
RSAT also falls short as a trending tool. Rather than showing a repair station’s complete data history, it shows only what was entered the previous year, making long-term trending impossible.
Adding to the challenge, the OIG found that because many inspectors have not been trained to use RSAT, they do not. Instead, they rely on their own inspection checklists and provide feedback in myriad ways. (At least one repair station says it received its audit findings and corrective actions in handwritten notes.)
However, RSAT fares better than RMP, which the OIG determined inspectors simply do not use.