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FAA Jeopardizes Safety With New “Fix-on-Fail” Policy for Equipment - (12/7/2005)

CONTACT:  Doug Fralick, 202/220.9804

WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration has fundamentally changed the way air traffic control equipment is maintained and now plans to wait until the equipment actually fails before conducting vital work. By waiting until a potentially dangerous failure occurs, this new agency policy directly threatens passenger safety and is the latest example of the agency’s mismanagement, which is reducing the reliability and integrity of the system by cutting corners.

The FAA formally adopted a document entitled, “Concept of Operations (ConOps),” which specifies fundamental changes in how maintenance of National Airspace System electronics equipment will be performed. The new concept, termed “Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM)” will be put in place over the next couple of years.

“While the FAA refers to it as an ‘event-based’ concept, it can best be described as a ‘fix-on-fail’ concept,” said National Air Traffic Controllers Association President John Carr. “What they’re doing is switching from preventative maintenance to a scheme where equipment will be used until it fails and then fixed. This is like buying a new car, neglecting to do any oil changes and then waiting until the engine seizes to take it to a mechanic. This is unsafe, unwise and will cost the agency more money in the long run than it will save.”

The preventative maintenance procedure has been used since the inception of the FAA and required a technician to perform regular checks of equipment to certify that it was safely operating. The new scheme specifies a change in procedure where equipment will be utilized until it fails; only then requiring a technician to fix it.

The ConOps scheme is based on the prior Corporate Maintenance Philosophy that was used in Alaska and was a recognized failure because of the increased duration of outages when equipment did fail due to multiple component failures within the unit.

“The whole purpose cited by the agency in the adoption of the new ConOps is to save money on maintenance. However, quite apart from serious safety concerns, there is the potential that equipment failures will be so extensive that the only viable repair will be to replace the entire equipment sets. Does this really save the agency any money?” said Jim D’Agati, a NATCA vice president who represents FAA engineers. “The costs associated with restoration of facilities dramatically increased after the initial period when this scheme was utilized in Alaska. Now the agency wants to expand this scheme to the rest of the country.”

Interestingly, the “run to fail” concept has been rejected when applied to aircraft as regulated by the FAA. Air frame manufacturers and air carrier maintenance companies are required to adhere to time intervals for checking avionics that are used by pilots. While pilot-used equipment undergoes a certification process based on recognized time intervals, the ground-based companion systems are being proposed to be maintained in an entirely different concept. The equipment being used as the “eyes and ears” of controllers charged with maintaining aircraft separation will be under a subjective determination on what equipment will be placed under the new maintenance scheme. There is a potential that over three-quarters of the ground-based equipment being utilized by pilots and controllers will be placed under this new scheme.

The ConOps scheme will also have a devastating change on the socio-economic impact to airports at smaller to medium-sized communities that have air service because of the reduced emphasis on restoration of equipment. The document specifies that the agency will no longer provide prompt restoration of outlying facilities beyond locations where multiple air carriers operate at the major airports. Communities without major air carrier services will be asked to contribute to the costs associated with maintaining equipment if they desire prompt restoration of services being provided by the FAA. For many small communities, this will have an impact in that they will not be able to afford to maintain the services that they now enjoy.

Both NATCA and the Professional Airways Systems Specialists objected to the concept of this new maintenance scheme as being unsafe to the flying public. Under the agency’s new plan, equipment will only be checked when a system has failed and is being returned to service. Such a severe reduction of periodic maintenance and certification will dramatically affect the aviation industry by increasing the number of unplanned outages and length of recovery time when equipment fails, and the overall safety of the NAS. Both unions’ concerns went unheeded and the FAA is proceeding with the new scheme.

Frequent air travelers or concerned citizens can get more information on FAA adoption of the new maintenance scheme, or lodge a complaint by calling 1-800-FLY US SAFE or visit www.flyussafe.com.

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