Sunday, June 12, 2016

Federal Aviation Administration tries 'driving a stake' through reporter's heart: Long battle for information from U.S. aviation regulator

Kathryn's Report:

by Will Jordan

It took the FAA more than two-and-a-half years to reply to one of our freedom of information requests, filed while we worked on our investigation Broken Dreams: the Boeing 787. We're still waiting on another, which we're told will come in July. That will be a three-year wait. It's pretty clear the agency is no friends of reporters.

"Sigh. I thought we'd driven a stake [or maybe even a steak] through Mother Sheila's heart … but no," writes Les Dorr, one of the FAA's media guys.

"Mother Sheila" is Sheila Kaplan, formerly of Mother Jones magazine, now with She was producing an investigative TV piece with Dan Rather on the 787 in 2007 and was asking numerous questions. "I told her, enough already!" wrote Dorr to his colleagues.

I showed Kaplan the comments and she was unsurprised. "The FAA's reluctance to answer questions about its oversight problems with Boeing is well-known."

"As a reporter, I don't care what PR people say about me. But, as a frequent flier, I truly hate to travel on airlines overseen by people who are dumb enough to put these kinds of comments in writing."

The FAA had no comment, but pointed out that Mr Dorr is not responsible for overseeing airline safety.

Twelve viewers, 8 fish

Kaplan and Rather's show generated lots of email chatter at the FAA. 

"I am getting more and more concerned about the report that Sheila Kaplan is preparing on the 787 certification," wrote Ali Bahrami, the regulator who finally signed off the "Dreamliner".

"I am not sure where all this will end up taking me."

After the programme aired, Special Assistant Julie Kitelinger concluded "it wasn't very well done", but it generated national attention and "a lot of reporters started submitting FOIA requests" straight afterwards.

Dorr also snipes that the programme, "probably has about 12 viewers in Seattle, and 8 of those are fish".

In the face of such negative publicity, Bahrami rallied the troops. "Hang in there," he wrote. "We are going to come out looking even more credible… This is a great learning opportunity for us all."

"It is hard to believe that a single person could cause this much chaos in an organisation," he wrote, presumably with reference to the whistleblower featured in the show, Vince Weldon.

The papers prove that the questions Kaplan was asking questions were hard for the FAA engineers to answer.

"We do not know what rules will ultimately be applied to lightning protection on the 787," Mike Dostert conceded privately to his FAA colleagues after a question from Kaplan back in October 2007.

Whistleblower Weldon had been calling into question the FAA and Boeing's safety to solutions to the carbon composite conundrum.

It all supports the theory, put to me by more than one Boeing engineer, that the company raced into building an all-composite fuselage for the 787, and only thought through all the engineering implications later.

The Boeing old-school ties grumble that in the New Boeing, marketing and sales people have a lot more influence than in the past.

Conflicts of interest

The rest of the documents the FAA has released are interesting too. The regulator delegates its responsibility for hands-on regulation to Boeing engineers. The papers show some of those guys were complaining about too much pressure coming from their Boeing bosses, who wanted them to hurry up and sign things off.

Many Boeing engineers we spoke to complained of this pressure. The old refrain was, "quality is king, but schedule is god!" That's the problem - a regulator-engineer is stuck in the middle between the FAA, where the stated priorities are safety and quality, and the Boeing business, where quality, safety, schedule and profit are all jostling for priority.

The relationship between the FAA and the businesses it regulates is even more problematic when you see how FAA officials, like the Director of the Aircraft Certification Service Dorenda Baker, refer to such companies as "customers". Is the FAA regulating aviation companies or selling them a service?

The regulator says it may have referred to companies we regulate as customers, "but more frequently we identify them as applicants or stakeholders. However, the specific term used does not alter the regulatory relationship. The FAA conducts its oversight of industry in accordance with federal law and FAA policy".

In 2007, when the FAA was working to delegate greater authority to Boeing, Philip Forde in the Seattle certification office reported to headquarters that Boeing was "frustrated by some of the strict procedures" that hamper their production.

Regulator-engineers who are on the shop floor, known in the jargon as Authorised Representatives (ARs), are supposed to be wearing their regulator hats, but they're also Boeing employees. So what do they do when, as is recorded in these papers, their managers complain that they are slowing things down?

The Bottleneck

One of these guys claims he was ridiculed and nicknamed "The Bottleneck" because he was such an obstacle to getting things done to Boeing’s schedule.

Another complained he was "talking to a brick wall" when he raised his concerns. We also read how the same engineer stormed out of a meeting because his Boeing managers wouldn't listen to his concerns.

It all makes sense when you put it into a bit of context. This was 2010, when the much-hyped 787 "Dreamliner" was already years delayed and several billion dollars over budget and becoming a costly embarrassment for Boeing. The company was under huge pressure to get it out of the hangar doors, off to the airlines and into the air. After all, they'd promised to have it ready to go by the Beijing Olympics, two years earlier.

The papers also show how, despite all the complaints from the ARs, the FAA remains deeply committed to the delegation system.

"It's really good to be back working with the FAA again... I'm really anxious to dig in and move us forward on the path to increased delegation," writes a Boeing employee [name redacted] to Ali Bahrami in October 2007.

Bahrami replies that "you are going to have a very important role within the company. We are going to be relying on you to ensure that the needed cultural change does occur and will continue to be the operating norm. You can rely on my support".

The FAA told Al Jazeera that delegation "leverages limited FAA resources and can respond to changes in workload and industry needs", and that the system is "a critical component of our safety system; therefore we impose the highest technical and ethical standards on our designees in order to ensure public, congressional, industry, and FAA confidence".

The FAA commitment to delegation came through in the NTSB hearings after the 787 grounding in 2013. Bahrami and Baker fiercely defended the system, saying it works well and they're simply not equipped to regulate by themselves. That is an odd sort of reassurance.

More broadly, when you think of the recent and ever-widening emissions scandal that began at Volkswagen, and of the horsemeat scandal in British food regulation and of the countless other failures of government regulation, you have to wonder whether the light touch really is the right touch.

Read more here:

1 comment:

the Last Inspector said...

This is a great article by Will Jordan of Al Jazeera that exposes more of the corrupt relationship between Boeing and FAA Management. In this case, it is the improper and undeserved delegation to Boeing of FAA oversight responsibilities so Mr. Bahrami could shortly thereafter get hired by a Boeing funded industry lobbying organization to tell replacement FAA Management that they too can get such a cushy job if they do the wrong thing and don't do their jobs just as he ensured he didn't. Bahrami also improperly signed off on the safety and conformity of the 787 program and quashed the investigations of Boeing QA Management and Boeing supplier fraud that I reported to the FAA for which he was handsomely later quid pro quo rewarded by Boeing as noted.

This article gives great insight into just how scared FAA Management is of the press, because they know that is the only way they potentially can have this fraud exposed and end up facing justice for it. It is pathetic that the only way the public can get corrupted FAA Management like Bahrami was to do even the smallest part of their job of oversight of Boeing is to expose their corruption prominently enough in the press. No wonder these crooked Boeing servants hate the press.

Because of this long history of Boeing capturing the FAA by these methods, the FAA sees Boeing as who it works for and not the public that funds them. Despicable. This fraud needs to be further exposed at every opportunity until such day that we can have the FAA work for us again and not instead to give their current owners in corrupt Boeing Management all the improper delegations, cover ups instead of investigations, and illegal passes from compliance with regulations they order.

Conflict of interest indeed. Boeing should have all FAA delegations rescinded immediately until such time as the FAA can be reformed with ethical employees and management. As penalty for their last century of such corruption, Boeing should be barred from any delegations for the next 100 years.

This delegation of Boeing has always been a fraud. If the FAA doesn't have the personnel to independently oversee Boeing, Boeing needs to wait until the FAA hires such personnel. Only then will Boeing ever support rather than habitually subvert the FAA's oversight role.

Boeing's delegations should have been taken away three years ago when the battery explosions/fires exposed that Boeing was abusing the system to subvert required oversight as usual. But that wouldn't have supported Bahrami's future Boeing career. "I am not sure where all this will end up taking me,” indeed. Only Bahrami's living the same life as equally corrupt Boeing Execs mattered, not the millions of lives he swore to impartially protect. Try to wrap your head around that level of narcissism and corruption if you can. And so such Boeing/FAA Management corruption goes.