FAA, Accountability and Responsibility Under the FARs: The Buck Stops Where?

The buck stops here . . . or does it?  A recent legal opinion by the FAA’s Office of Chief Counsel sheds new light on this question.

One of the most important goals of the Federal Aviation Regulations is to create a system of accountability.  Virtually every task or operation touching on flight has a person who is designated as being officially responsible for ensuring that it is performed correctly.  The regulations designate the pilot in command as the final authority for the operation of the aircraft. 14 C.F.R. § 91.3.  For any maintenance operation, there is a person who must officially “sign-off” and certify that the repair was performed “satisfactorily.”  14 C.F.R. § 43.9.  In fact, virtually all operations must be overseen by a person designated by the company to be the “accountable manager.”  See e.g. 14 C.F.R. § 145.151.  While these regulations make clear that the person at the top of the decision chain is always responsible if something is done improperly, it leaves open the question of how far back down the chain does responsibility, and the FAA’s ability to punish, flow.

The FAA Chief Counsel’s Office was asked to provide an opinion on whether responsibility for improperly performed maintenance falls solely on the approving mechanic, or whether others can also be held responsible (http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/agc/pol_adjudication/agc200/interpretations/data/interps/2014/Romigh%20-%20(2014)%20Legal%20Interpretation.pdf).  The FAA noted that the approving mechanic’s primary role is supervisory and is related to record keeping requirements.  These requirements do not affect the completely separate obligations that apply to any person who performs maintenance and alteration work.  Those individuals are required to use only methods, techniques, and practices approved by the manufacturer or the Administrator.  See 14 C.F.R. § 43.13.  As a result, “each person (not only those who approve the work) is responsible for the proper performance of maintenance.”

This opinion letter highlights a problem that can impact any organization.  Management cannot allow a culture to develop where persons who are performing the work come to believe that total compliance with requirements is not their responsibility because someone else will catch any mistakes they might make.  It is only through the full functioning of these interlocking responsibilities for performance, supervision, and recordkeeping that an organization can be sure that a mistake won’t slip through the cracks.

This mandates every aviation organization to check its procedures and policies to insure that everyone up and down the chain, appreciates the fact that their credibility and, maybe, their future, is on the line.

(Originally posted May 9, 2014)

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