What Is FAA Hiding from the Public? And Why??

FAA, like many federal agencies, has a nasty habit of expending lots of time and money working to keep the people in the dark. They are supposed to comply with FOIA laws, but instead they redact the hell out of what should be disclosed. Making matters worse, in recent decades it seems as though most in Congress are ‘too busy’ and/or ‘too inert’ to force FAA to follow the FOIA laws.

Every once in a while, we get a great chance to look past these barriers. Sometimes, FAA’s redactions become unmasked. When that happens, it is like sitting down with the devil, and sharing tea and a candid conversation. So much can be learned….

In this Post, a 27-page FAA memo is offered in two forms, redacted and unredacted. This memo documents how a safety investigation produced copious details and a strong recommendation for corrective action … which was then nixed by a higher FAA official. The heavily redacted copy was provided to an investigative report team. Seeing that so much data was hidden, they filed an appeal. An appeal response letter was eventually sent, rejecting the appeal, but somehow a copy of the unredacted 27-page was included in the appeal response letter.

Here are the two versions, presented as scrollable/downloadable/searchable PDFs. View them side-by-side. See for yourself what FAA chose to redact, when a reporter team tried to help the public understand how FAA was handling a dangerous safety failure involving commercial aircraft maintenance.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the heavily unredacted version, as initially sent by FAA (and after extensive review by numerous FAA managers). Click here to download the PDF file.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the full, unredacted version. Click here to download the PDF file.

The Background:

A few days ago, an aiREFORM Post encouraged readers to read the excellent investigative series done by the Tampa Bay Times. In the third article of the series, Nathaniel Lash showed how higher level FAA managers were over-riding the conclusions and recommendations of their field inspectors. The inspectors were investigating how a nut had detached causing an elevator jam, forcing an Allegiant MD80 to do a high-speed aborted takeoff at Las Vegas. This was an extremely serious situation that would have assuredly killed everyone on board, if the nut had failed while actually airborne. A similar failure caused the 1/31/2000 crash of Alaska 261, an MD83 that lost flight control near Santa Barbara and plunged into the Pacific, killing all 88 on board.

The similarities are in two troubling areas:

  1. the casual failure by maintenance crews to properly execute their tasks and to follow needed steps that would identify and fix failures (so as to ensure nuts do not fall off leading to catastrophic crashes); and,
  2. FAA’s gross failure at safety oversight, where key FAA officials knowingly allow maintenance crews to sidestep required procedures.

The latest Times article showed that FAA was found to be covering up dangerous maintenance failures performed by AAR on the Allegiant passenger jet. Note that AAR is a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) operation; over the past decade, airlines have been reducing labor costs related to employing their own mechanics by increasingly outsourcing aircraft maintenance to MRO contractors. Costs may go down, but so do safety margins.

An Outstanding Investigative Series on Allegiant Failures and FAA Hiding Those Safety Issues From the Public

If you are increasingly concerned that FAA appears to be just a hack, a faux-regulator that does not really serve the people but instead enables the industry … you need to read these articles.

If you have felt yourself doubting the veracity of an FAA high official, as they spew glowing pro-NextGen claims while dodging the enormous failures and impacts (like David Suomi, at the Port of Seattle on 4/25/2016; to see the video, click here, then select the April ‘video’ tab, and ‘Item 3c – Briefing’ under the 4/25 meeting) … well, you need to take a look at these articles.

This is where agency corruption goes beyond being an annoyance, to become downright dangerous.

When the Nut is Not Secured…

This photo was shot during an investigation after an Allegiant MD80 was forced to do a high speed aborted takeoff. The castellated nut at the center of the photo has a twisted safety wire, to prevent the nut from detaching. The near-accident was caused by failure to secure the nut, creating a jammed elevator.

Despite FAA and industry efforts to confuse us all, this is not rocket science.

Given the speed and power in aviation, it is absolutely critical that parts not ‘come apart’ while operating.

So, what happens when aircraft mechanics fail to include a cotter pin or safety wire, as in the photo at right? Well, in this example, a hundred or so aircraft occupants are damned lucky they did not end up dead in a post-impact fire in Las Vegas. What exactly happened? While accelerating for takeoff, the nose lifted up on its own and the crew suddenly discovered they had zero elevator control. They cut the power to bring the nose back down and, luckily, had enough runway remaining to come to a safe stop and taxi back to the gate.

…Safety Eventually Breaks Down

This particular incident has far bigger repercussions. It was one of many incidents that caught the attention of Nathaniel Lash and other reporters, who did an outstanding investigative series, published by the Tampa Bay Times. Here are links to archived PDF copies of the three articles:

The third piece just came out, and it includes an interesting twist. It appears that FOIA was used, and that FAA heavily redacted their response documents. A formal appeal was filed and, eventually, an appeal response letter was sent back by FAA, denying the request to reveal the redactions. BUT… a fully unredacted copy was enclosed with the appeal response! So, now we can see what FAA chose to initially redact (which itself can be extremely revealing).

Was the fully unredacted report enclosed by accident? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it was enclosed by someone who had seen too much. FAA employees are real people, often feeling trapped in a corrupt and soulless bureaucracy, and silenced by the fear of losing their paycheck. Sometimes real people become sick and tired of all the lying and propaganda, and feel it is their duty to bypass the corrupt intentions of higher FAA officials; sometimes they make little ‘mistakes’ with big consequences. Lucky for all of us, not all FAA employees are afraid of the agency’s ‘culture of fear’. Some really do blow the whistle, and sometimes they do this in very subtle ways.

Also, for those who really want to dive deep, check out the 27-page unredacted report.