The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Compliance Program and how it impacts the public safety UAS user

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Compliance Program and how it impacts the public safety UAS user

The FAA Compliance Program was borne out of the Federal Aviation Administration Compliance Philosophy, first published June 26, 2015. See FAA Compliance Philosophy Order 8000.373 here: https://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Order/FAA_Order_8000.373.pdf . For pilots and aircraft operators, the FAA has been viewed as the overarching enforcement body that stands by ready to pounce when a pilot makes a mistake or when there is an aircraft incident. In hangars and pilot lounges across the country, it is not uncommon for aviators to pause in their stories about “there I was” and insert the phrase: “Hi, I’m from the FAA and I’m here to help.”

Some of the criticism has merit and some does not. As with any enforcement agency, there are good experiences and then there are bad experiences. We naturally tend to focus on the latter most likely because we generally don’t like our mistakes pointed out.

The FAA has a significant responsibility to maintain the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS). So naturally, the FAA is seen as the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) enforcer that wields mighty power in the form of fines and suspensions when that really isn’t the case. My experience with the FAA and Aviation Safety Inspectors (ASIs) is that they are the utmost professionals in their field. Their intent is to ensure that we, as pilots and operators, are conducting ourselves professionally, in the safest way possible, and operating sound aircraft thereby reducing unnecessary risk to passengers, aircraft, and people on the ground.

The FAA has many Flight District Standards Offices (FSDOs) across the country that are charged with inspecting all phases of aviation operations. FSDOs have ASIs that routinely visit operators and airports to conduct random, unannounced inspections of pilots and aircraft within their respective areas of responsibility.

The FAA as a whole has taken in feedback from pilots and operators who may have had unpleasant experiences and is in the process of trying to change perceptions within the aviation community which they serve. Pilots who have been hesitant to report discrepancies or deviations from FARs in the past out of fear of repercussions of making a mistake are being encouraged to participate in this safety initiative for the benefit of all. Hesitation to report creates a substantial safety risk in itself if operators are reluctant. How are we, as an industry, to learn from mistakes if they are under reported or not reported at all?

NASA (yes, that NASA) in cooperation with the FAA created an Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) to identify issues in the NAS which need to be addressed. The program provides a way for any user of the NAS to report to NASA, a third party intermediary, an actual or potential safety issue involving aviation operations. The Aviation Safety Reporting form (more commonly referred to as a NASA report) is used where a pilot can admit guilt of violating a FAR without fear of enforcement action by the FAA. This process is in effect a “get out of jail free card” for admitting mistakes or deviations; but this self-reporting doesn’t work with intentional violations. Under 14 CFR FAR Section 91.25 the FAA is prohibited from using these reports for enforcement purposes. The FAA would accept this information and conduct an investigation of the incident to understand the details of what occurred to avoid similar mistakes in the future. However, pilots and others have naturally underutilized this process because of the underlying fear of repercussions from an employer or the FAA.

The FAA has refocused its efforts of voluntary compliance with the Federal Aviation Administration Compliance Philosophy by issuing the Federal Aviation Administration Compliance Program Order 8000.373A on October 31, 2018. See the order here: https://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Order/FAA_Order_8000.373A.pdf.

The FAA sees its role as a guiding hand to incentivize retraining where needed and has graduated the enforcement action process. When deviations from a standard occur, the FAA wants to use the most effective means to return an individual or entity back into full compliance in order to prevent recurrence.

The FAA in their own words, believe that mistakes can most effectively be corrected by understanding the cause and analyzing the deviation for flawed procedures, a lack of understanding, or even a diminished skill set. By focusing on retraining, education, or other improvements to procedures the operator can come back into compliance without penalty. However, reluctance or failure in adopting these recommendations or methods to remediate deviations or instances of repeated deviations might result in enforcement. Read: HAMMER DROP!

This is where Public Safety operators must understand some restrictions. No matter what the mission, no matter how well intended, there is no asking for forgiveness from the FAA if you intentionally violate a FAR. The FAA views intentional deviations from regulatory standards as reckless and an unacceptable risk to safety which poses the highest risk to the NAS and general public. This will result in heavy enforcement action in the form of fines and suspensions of certifications no matter who you work for. Again: HAMMER DROP!

The following was taken directly from the Federal Aviation Administration Compliance Program Order 8000.373A:  “Regulatory violations involving law enforcement-related activities may be addressed with enforcement. In addition, legal enforcement will be taken when required by law.” Once again read: HAMMER DROP! In the eyes of the FAA, if you know better, then you know better!

By starting your program understanding what the rules are prior to engaging UAS operations, you’ll be in a better position to avoid deviations from the FARS such as flights that require night time waivers, waivers to operate over crowds, and other restrictions you may not currently be aware of ahead of time.