Saturday, March 14, 2015

Is Watching Drone Videos Good Use Of Federal Aviation Administration Inspector Time?

By John Goglia

I’ve been trying for several weeks to find out how the FAA is using inspector resources in investigating unmanned aerial vehicle – drone – operators.  One of my concerns has been with what appears in the media to be a disproportionate use of scarce FAA inspector resources on drones that may not have the same safety impact as other aviation issues, for example, air carrier operations that carry millions of passengers annually.  One of my concerns has been ongoing allegations of maintenance problems at several airlines, one involving a lawsuit by mechanics at American Airlines claiming intimidation by the airline for reporting safety problems.  The FAA initially responded that it would get right back to me with a response on how many inspectors were being used in drone investigtions.  I’m still waiting.

Well this week has brought to light how at least two FAA safety officials in disparate parts of the country have been spending some of their time: watching drone videos.  In both cases, the videos were apparently not being watched to ferret out unsafe operations of drones but to determine whether the operators were engaged in commercial activities.  One case involved the head of the Portland, Maine Flight Standards District Office who left a voice mail message for a drone operator he suspected of operating commercially informing him that they would be looking for him to take down his website.  No mention of any safety issues on the voice mail.  The other case involved a letter sent to a drone hobbyist from an FAA inspector in Tampa, Florida informing him that his YouTube account indicated that he was operating commercially.  Again, no mention in the letter of any safety concerns. The letter purports to be an educational letter informing the drone operator of the FAA rules. I would say the inspector needs to be educated on whether a YouTube account indicates commercial operation, but I digress.

To put my concern about use of inspector time on non-safety issues in context, the FAA’s latest workforce data indicates that there are 4,104 aviation safety inspectors.  The aviation industry those inspectors are responsible for is captured in an FAA table included in its FY14 Workforce Planning Report.  These are some highlights from that table.  You can review for yourselves the staggering responsibilities that a mere four thousand people have in overseeing the US aviation system and decide whether viewing drone videos for commercial operations should occupy even an iota of inspector time.

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