Silent Skies

In July of 2006, an expose of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was published in Mother Jones. The article had to do with the FAA’s position as a safety regulatory agency—that millions of Americans rely on the FAA to inspect and certify aircraft that we fly on. When these inspections go wrong, and when equipment is installed improperly, people die.

The FAA, much like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is supposed to be a protective agency. As a consumer, I rely on the practices of these agencies to prevent me from being seriously injured on board an aircraft, while eating food, and while taking medication. These agencies inspect and approve new technology, and they pay inspectors nationwide to uphold their standards.

What the Mother Jones article was discussing is the growing trend of outsourcing: allowing other companies, for example, to perform work and certify it themselves. This is usually called “self regulation,” and it usually doesn’t work. Why? Because most companies are about the bottom dollar, and doing quality work is not always cost efficient.

The article, like other Mother Jones articles, is well researched: one of the authors actually went out into the field to look at how aircraft are maintained and inspected, and was escorted by a member of Professional Airway Systems Specialists, the union for inspectors. The inspector showed the reporter how aircraft were inspected, and pointed out a safety violation on the shop floor.

Before the article even came out, the FAA was planning to fire the inspector, claiming that he had brought the reporter to the hangar on false pretenses. Somewhat unusually, the reporter has spoken out to clarify the situation, arguing that his source in fact disclosed, multiple times, that he was a reporter. He’s also got the audio to prove it. The FAA, however, is refusing to take his evidence into account.

Can I just say how fucked up this is?

I was under the impression that this country had some protection for whistleblowers, which is what this flight inspector essentially is. He spoke out because conventional FAA employees couldn’t, by gag order, and he saw issues with aviation inspection that needed to be addressed. He didn’t try to conceal the reporter’s identity, or lead anyone one: he was clear and frank with everyone the two men interacted with. The FAA has decided to repay him for his commitment to flight safety with permanent “administrative leave” that will probably turn into a firing.

As consumers, I think we should be worried about this. People should be encouraged to expose unsafe practices in their industries…not be punished for telling the truth.