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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