FAA “Forgiveness?!”

The FAA “Compliance Program” is the “kinder, gentler” face of the FAA that is unfamiliar to most pilots. In our increasingly polarized society, we usually only see the ugly enforcement side of the FAA; certificate revocations and sanctions. But there has been a tectonic change in the FAA that promotes pilot re-education and  improvement, accommodating “honest mistakes.” The old “don’t hesitate, violate” attitude is finally fading.

The overview is that every honest, diligent pilot, that breaks a regulation inadvertently, should not face FAA “legal enforcement” but rather can (and should) be counseled and educated to be a better pilot creating a safer total system. Harsh punitive action has proven to create the opposite result. This recent change grew out of the “Just Culture” ideas of Sidney Dekker and others. Programs like this have been highly successful in the airlines. Compliance is a HUGE philosophical change following the lead of innovations like the ASRS, and ASAP reporting program. This all finally became approved FAA guidance about 6 years ago. There has since been an emerging culture shift in the FAA and the way they handle pilot violations.

FAA_Order_8000.373A: “The FAA recognizes that some deviations arise from factors such as flawed procedures, simple mistakes, lack of understanding, or diminished skills. The Agency believes that deviations of this nature can most effectively be corrected through root cause analysis and training, education or other appropriate improvements to procedures or training programs for regulated entities, which are documented and verified to ensure effectiveness.” 

This program should not be interpreted as the FAA “going easy” on intentional noncompliance. Willful regulatory violations and repeated offenses will still be handled with strict enforcement. The compliance program is for pilots who accidentally violate a regulation and also demonstrate a  “history of compliance” (participation in the FAA WINGS program helps too). These ‘honest mistakes’ will most often be handled with counseling and additional training rather than enforcement.

To implement this approach, pilot cooperation is required; both admitting responsibility and sharing information. Legal counsel may still be engaged, but the goal is a more open and positive “problem sharing” discussion (sometimes difficult with even well-intentioned lawyers). The open exchange of information leads to better overall system safety. Admittedly, trust is difficult when talking with “the authorities,” but there is a defined process established with legal assurances for the safe resolution of issues. This is why the FAA Pilot Bill of Rights is now so prominently embedded in the FAA regulatory system. An FAA Compliance Action also does not constitute a “finding of violation” on your pilot certificate.

The FAA Compliance Program (pdf) is part of FAA‘s larger Risk-Based Decision Making (RBDM) strategic initiative that is integrated into the ACS testing standards and Pilot Proficiency Program (WINGS). The increasing level of complexity of the aviation environment no longer permits safety improvements exclusively through following a purely rule-based approach. A safer system requires creative risk management and lifetime learning. Fly safely out there (and often)!

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

5 thoughts on “FAA “Forgiveness?!””

  1. And interesting thing about rigid enforcement-based compliance is that we humans (and all pilots, dispatchers, crew members, and ATC) are both incentivized and taught through experience and culture to bury our ‘violations’ and normalize deviations… Rigid structures pervert our desired outcomes and the rule of violation avoidance becomes “do it anyway… just don’t get caught”. It’s far better for system safety to encourage self recognition of error… and create opportunities for us to self correct… i.e. have the freedom to self criticize and have permission to say “Aw SHUCKS!… I can do better than that!”. Good article.

    1. Our whole culture currently seems to be “do it anyway!” Very little civility and integrity…and get by with the absolute minimum effort! Arghh🤮

      1. Martha Lunken was the 2021 poster child for “do it anyway…” I received an email from her in response to a critical comment I made on an article in Flying Magazine regarding the FAA sanctions she received for her bridge escapade. In her email she wrote: “Flying has been my forever passion and joy. Alas, doing something illegal (not unsafe) and breaking a rule is probably in my DNA. … I doubt I’ll be flying under any more bridges…but, then again.” Of course her DNA isn’t too different from the more recent videographer who jumped from his aircraft with cameras recording every instant of his supposed engine failure. The two Red Bull pilots who failed in their attempt to swap planes (after the FAA explicitly denied waivers for the stunt) actually took the “DNA” driven poor decision to stratospheric heights.

        So, what is the solution for modern equivalents to Gladys Ingle’s 1926 in flight tire change on a Curtis? More rules? More (adverse) consequences? Or??

      2. There is a definite “anti-authoritarian” streak in many people (we see this in all walks of life). It is hard to know if “compliance” is the right sanction for them. For most aggressive, hard-nose enforcement is not helpful though.

  2. Great program !!!
    I supported and participated as a FAASTeam member helping pilots discover the benefits of continuing education and voluntary compliance.
    Pilots are given the opportunity to chose the methods and tools available for safety of flight via professional development like the Wings program and other aviation industry organizations.
    Proficiency and mastery rather than “currency” ….or asking “experts” on social media.

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