Aviation Safety:

Better Management Controls are Needed to Improve FAA's Safety Enforcement and Compliance Efforts

GAO-04-646: Published: Jul 6, 2004. Publicly Released: Jul 19, 2004.

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The safety of the nation's flying public depends, in large part, on the aviation industry's compliance with safety regulations and the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) enforcement of those regulations when violations occur. FAA attempts to gain the industry's compliance through enforcement tools, including levying fines and suspending or revoking operating certificates, and partnership programs that allow participating companies or individuals to self-report violations of safety regulations and mitigate or avoid fines or other legal actions. GAO was asked to assess how FAA uses its enforcement options to address noncompliance and what management controls are in place to ensure that enforcement efforts and partnership programs result in compliance with aviation safety regulations.

FAA relied on administrative actions such as warning notices to close most of its enforcement cases--53 percent of the nearly 200,000 enforcement actions taken during fiscal years 1993 through 2003--and closed about 28 percent with legal sanctions, such as fines. The administrative actions include those taken in response to violations that were self-reported under FAA's industry partnership programs, some of which allow airlines and pilots to self-report violations that, in many cases, FAA then closes administratively. In addition, when FAA managers recommend legal sanctions, they are often reduced by FAA legal counsel staff. For example, FAA managers recommended fines totaling about $334 million for fiscal years 1993-2003; that amount was subsequently reduced to about $162 million. According to FAA, it reduces or eliminates the sanctions when it has proof that the violator is attempting to correct the violation or new evidence arises that may exonerate the alleged violator. Annually, FAA closed about 3,200 cases (about 18 percent of the total cases) without taking action. Cases were often closed in this manner because the investigative reports prepared by inspectors who initially identified the possible violations lacked sufficient evidence, according to FAA. FAA has established some management controls over its enforcement efforts and partnership programs, such as guidance on detecting violations, but lacks management controls in other areas. Specifically, FAA lacks explicit, measurable performance goals for its enforcement actions and partnership programs. In addition, FAA does not evaluate its enforcement efforts and partnership programs. Because FAA has not evaluated the effect of its enforcement actions, it is not possible to tell whether those actions have had a deterrent effect on future violations. FAA is limited in its ability to evaluate enforcement efforts because the agency lacks comprehensive nationwide data. For example, FAA field offices maintain independent, site-specific databases on enforcement cases because of missing or incomplete information in the nationwide Enforcement Information System database, but these databases are not linked. Thus, data maintained in one office are not readily available to other offices

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To determine the effectiveness of the agency's enforcement actions and partnership programs, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop a continuous evaluative process and use it to create measurable performance goals for enforcement actions, track performance towards those goals, and determine appropriate program changes. The evaluation should consider the agency's use of administrative actions and closure of cases with no action, and to identify repeat violators and repeat types of violations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: FAA tasked its Compliance and Review Team to study the feasibility of establishing performance measurement goals for the compliance and enforcement program, and to study the performance evaluation goals and processes used by other federal agencies that have regulatory safety enforcement programs. The team prepared a concept paper with its findings that included the reasons why it would not be practicable to implement a performance measurement system on the compliance and enforcement program at this time. As a result of several limitations, the team recommended that FAA defer implementation of performance measurements on its compliance and enforcement program until EIS modernization has been implemented and the evaluation stage of the Targeted Enforcement effort has been completed. For the Targeted Enforcement effort, FAA adopted the Enforcement Decision Tool (EDT) in October 2005 and developed an evaluation plan. Once the evaluation stage has been completed, performance measurement principles could be imported into the evaluation plan. FAA started the process of EIS modernization with the publication of the EIS Modernization Requirements Document on October 19, 2007. There are no time frames for completion of the modernization effort. Regarding the time frames for completion of the EDT evaluation: case evaluations were to be completed by June 27, 2008 and analysis and reports are to be completed by September 1, 2008. As of September 2009, FAA had no further information to report on when EIS modernization will be near completion, the results from the EDT evaluation and if performance measurement principles were imported into the evaluation plan.

    Recommendation: To determine the effectiveness of the agency's enforcement actions and partnership programs, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to work with industry partners to develop a continuous evaluative process and use it to create measurable performance goals for the partnership programs, track performance towards those goals, and determine appropriate program changes. The evaluation should consider the use and effectiveness of administrative actions in certain partnership programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, FAA created electronic data bases for entities that participate in FAA's industry partnership programs (i.e. Aviation Safety Action Program and Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program) to enter data on safety problems and track corrective actions. FAA uses this data to compile lists of safety accomplishments. However, the agency does not use this data as part of a continuous evaluative process to track performance toward set goals or determine appropriate program changes. The agency has no plans to change this process.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of the Enforcement Information System (EIS) database to inspection offices and the Office of Chief Counsel, including providing them with historical data on which to base their sanctions, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to make efforts to improve the completeness of enforcement information, such as consistently including information on why the sanctions are reduced, as part of the agency's planned efforts to enhance EIS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA is currently undertaking an EIS modernization effort. In 2007, FAA developed the EIS Modernization Functional Requirements Document. According to the document, modernizing the EIS will allow the FAA to implement several enhancements recommended by GAO in our 2004 report. The enhancements include: reducing duplicate data entry in multiple systems; improving links between inspection and enforcement information systems; providing a more user friendly system; and increasing the size of comment and remarks fields to provide more narrative information about enforcement cases (e.g., to describe the violation event more thoroughly, or to provide more information on why sanction amounts proposed by the Program Office are reduced by the Legal Staff). Further, FAA has updated its Compliance and Enforcement Program, through Order 2150.3B (finalized October 1, 2007), to include a requirement that legal counsel document in the case file any changes in a proposed sanction and the reasons that justify the change.

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