Blog #2 noted the problems that using the Palomar methane-emitting, linerless landfill as a Runway Safety Area [RSA] could trigger. A reader suggested leaving this safety issue to the experts. A good idea?
Under the heading “Unhelpful Advice,” a 2012 Reader’s Digest issue noted a Boston Federal Reserve Bank sign: “In case of fire, evacuate building. Do not use stairways. Do not use elevators.” A bad sign of federal safety competence.
What signs exist to fear placing your Palomar safety in the FAA’s hands?
Budget Cutbacks. FAA budget cutbacks have been news for 30-years. Cutbacks include layoffs and furloughs. The rapidly increasing federal debt has triggered the most recent FAA budget cut concerns.
Bigger Fish to Fry. Now in the news is the FAA order grounding the Boeing Dreamliner aircraft. Leaking lithium-ion batteries create fire concerns. The simple truth: the FAA has concerns far more pressing than an obscure Palomar landfill. Absent a firey landfill accident, don’t expect FAA review.
Competence. A January 2013 Dreamliner article noted:
"The FAA is responsible for certifying new planes, but the agency is chronically understaffed and, to some extent, lacking expertise in some of the latest technologies. That leaves the agency heavily reliant on manufacturers like Boeing. [Business, 1/23/13, "Dreamliner Woes Expose FAA's Potential Weak Spots"]
If the FAA lacks core competence, why believe the FAA has competence to analyze safety matters related to aircraft crashing into methane-emitting landfills?
Delegated Responsibility. As noted above, the FAA at times fails to assure safety because it has delegated responsibility to third parties. For instance, because certain Dreamliner technology – including battery technology - is sophisticated, the FAA allows Boeing to “self-certify” that the technology works.
In the context of Palomar, the FAA relied on the County to disclose any Palomar problems. It appears that the County has told the FAA little about the RSA landfill underground fire, consultant falsification of certain landfill records, and periodic methane gas emissions exceeding regulatory limits.
Grants. If you have kids, you understand OPM. Other People’s Money. Once your kids work, they spend money more wisely than when they spent yours.
Until 2012, the FAA funded 95% of most County and other airport sponsor projects. Recently, the FAA reduced the federal contribution to 90%. In the future, who knows? So FAA grant applicants share one impulse: “Get my OPM now.” Safety is secondary.
Lobbyists. Reporters have noted three causes of the 2008 U.S. real estate crash. First, federal pressure to loan money to unqualified buyers. Second, allowing buyers to “self-report” income without proof. Third, allowing banks to convert mortgages into financial products that no one understood or questioned. Lobbyists pushed all these changes. Just as they push Congress for new aircraft certification, airport projects, and safety waivers.
Politics. Congress long ago passed the Hatch Act to prevent federal employees from engaging in political activity on the job. The New York Times reported last year that the FAA’s No. 2 safety official was being investigated. Why? For allegedly emailing FAA employees that the FAA could avoid budget cuts if democrats were elected to office.
How careful a safety review do you suppose the No. 2 FAA safety official would perform when a legislator pushes a project having safety concerns? [NYTimes, Sheryl Stolberg, “Inquiry Starts at FAA Over Remark on Budget,” 9/8/12]
Rocking the Boat. I have talked with FAA staff. FAA staff is well aware of what many of us know from our jobs: don’t rock the boat. Go along to get along. If an airport wants upgrading, particularly one politicians push, you don’t make turbulence, or kiss promotions goodbye. What kind of atmosphere does that create for objective safety analysis?
Technology. By 2025, the FAA expects to have a new “en route” safety system fully operational. In the interim, the FAA Inspector General has reported that early testing has revealed safety problems. [InformationWeek Government, J. Nicholas Hoover, “Problems Plague FAA’s NextGen Air Traffic Control Upgrade”]
Whistleblowers. Last year the Associated Press reported: “In an unusual public rebuke, a government watchdog charged … that airline safety regulators have lagged in responding to urgent safety problems, including takeoff and landing procedures at one airport that caused some planes to nearly collide.” The article also noted other safety problems including outfitting hundreds of emergency medical helicopters with tinted glass that hindered pilot flight operation. [Associated Press, 5/8/12, “FAA Whistleblowers Continue to Point Out Safety Problems,” Joan Lowy]
How should the FAA be graded? Beyond our scope. Especially since other FAA- related concerns have been omitted here. But don’t assume the FAA has your safety within its wingspan.
Next Week: Blog 16, Palomar Airport Safety: Part 2: Why Won’t the County Assure Your Palomar Safety?