In the 1949 musical comedy, The Inspector General, Danny Kaye terrorizes a small European town full of corrupt politicians who mistake him for an imperial inspector general who is there to root out corruption and incompetence. While modern inspectors general working for the Federal Government do not have the same powers of life or death as their fictional counterparts, they can still strike terror in the heart of any bureaucrat.
It is the job of the Department of Transportation Inspector General to be “the sole in-house source for objective examination of its programs and their integrity, along with our core values and audit and investigative expertise, [to] ensure we remain highly responsive to the needs of the Secretary, Congress, and the American people.” In furtherance of those objectives, the DOT Inspector General announced today it will be conducting a comprehensive audit of the FAA’s handling of the Section 333 Exemption process and the effectiveness of the FAA’s safety oversight of civil UAS operations.
It will be fascinating to see the results of this audit. It is undeniable the FAA’s UAS Integration Office has made monumental progress in opening up the skies to commercial UAS flights. It took the FAA about nine months to grant the first 20 Exemptions. In the last six months, the FAA has granted over 1,200 exemptions. There are, however, still significant issues with the process. A simple amendment to an exemption to add an additional vehicle can take several months to process. In addition, the interface between the Federal Register, where the petitions are filed, and the FAA docket, where the petitions are entered into the system for review, is completely overburdened by the volume of new petitions and is becoming a source of new delays. A fresh look at the system by the Inspector General may lead to procedural improvements and further streamlining.
Even more interesting will be the Inspector General’s views of the current safety oversight process for UAS. The audit announcement makes specific reference to the fact that there are about 60 UAS related incidents reported each month, and that some of those incidents are very serious. The FAA clearly views their enforcement policy as appropriate, as it recently reauthorized the enforcement guidelines for another year without making any significant changes. This means that the FAA is keeping its philosophy to warn and educate first, and only go to enforcement where someone is either willfully noncompliant after a warning, or has done something that constitutes a substantial safety risk. While we doubt the Inspector General will be in favor of a “shoot first and ask question later” approach to enforcement, a more hard line philosophy may be recommended over the current one.
The involvement of the Inspector General on these issues is a welcome development. Even if, at the end of the day, the conclusion is that they systems are working as best they can, having an independent confirmation of that fact will help Congress in their oversight, and ensure the confidence of an overall cynical public.
(Originally posted August 21, 2015)