February 1, 1999
Just four days prior to Christmas, counting the hours until a holiday break, much of the leadership of Washington, D.C.-based aviation associations found themselves in the infamous "round room" on the tenth floor of FAA headquarters.
One of the meeting's agenda items — titled "Revised Ticket Program" — came as a bit of a surprise. Upon seeing the agenda I indicated that the FAA might want to change that, since Administrator Jane Garvey had stated publicly at AOPA Expo in late October that the "ticket program, as we know it, is dead."
Let me describe what the FAA proposed as an internal administrative change early in 1998. Following the ValuJet accident, the General Accounting Office (GAO) took the FAA to task, stating that not enough data was being collected on infractions of the rules that could point to weaknesses within government systems. The thinking here was good — to collect information that might lead to positive solutions prior to major accidents or perilous safety issues. Many of us applaud the work of NASA with the Aviation Safety Reporting System (we as pilots know it as the NASA or ASRS form). The data collected by this program maintains the anonymity and immunity of the submitter, and often has been used to change procedures. So much for something that works!
The FAA's solution to the GAO request (perhaps worked on in the round room) was dubbed the "Ticket Program." FAA inspectors would be able to issue tickets to airmen on the spot, just as a police officer does on the side of the roadway. These tickets would form a streamlined process, as an "administrative action," to dispose of violations that are too minor to warrant legal enforcement action. The administrative action process, without tickets, has been around for some time, and AOPA has always felt that it could be improved. Under the old process, a warning notice or letter of correction was issued. The negative aspect of this was that al-though it does not constitute a "finding of a violation," there is an official record against the airman that is supposed to be erased two years after the action is taken. On behalf of our members, we have consistently objected to the fact that there is no right of appeal.
Not only general aviation pilots but all FAA certificate holders cried "foul" when the ticket program was an-nounced. Airline pilots, maintenance personnel, controllers, and many others rose in opposition to the program. Through the on-the-spot issuance of tickets, imagine the huge increase in minor violations that the FAA might find, and all going on an airman's record for two years.
Well, the meeting organizers took the suggestion, changed the agenda item title, and the aviation community received a short document, "Changes to Implementing Streamlined Administrative Action Process" (SAAP). Before discussion began, I mentioned that typical of FAA acronyms, they hadn't thought this one through very well, since pilots viewed this as the "sap" program — we being the saps. The administrator then turned to me and said, "We got your many letters, and those from your members." She was referring to the multiple letters of objection that AOPA filed with her during the public comment periods, as well as the letters and e-mails that came from many of you.
To be perfectly fair, the FAA listened to your concerns and those of the entire aviation community. Our united support killed the most onerous part of this program — the tickets. After careful review of the limited information provided to us on the revised program, I sent the administrator a letter applauding her action in dropping the tickets. In addition, we congratulated her on the FAA's amending the program to allow pilots seven days to respond to the warning notice they might receive.
On the other hand, we felt it necessary to indicate that "the devil may be in the details," rather than to come out with immediate support, as some organizations have already done. My letter posed several questions that need answers before AOPA could endorse the revisions. Some of our concerns are procedural: How will the agency handle the revisions, considering that an FAA order has been published? When will these revisions be available? Will there be an opportunity for public review and comment? Then, how will the new program be implemented — through an advisory circular, inspector handbook changes, or rulemaking? How will the criteria for the types of actions be interpreted, in light of the documents already published?
We then asked about the process once an inspector returns to the office and decides that no action is required. Would that information still carry the pilot's name and be recorded in his or her file? Once a letter is sent to an airman, how will the FAA count the seven-day response period — from the date of the letter or the date of receipt? Based on this response, what criteria will be used to reopen the case? Will the current administrative action process still exist, or will this be merely an expansion of it?
My prediction is that all of this will sort itself out, so that pilots will end up in no worse a position than before the "ticket program" raised its ugly head. The real shame here is a missed opportunity to really address minor infractions of the FARs with positive, informal counseling of pilots, which could have a much greater beneficial effect on aviation safety. And this could be done without the "black mark" on a pilot's record. We'll continue to push that concept with the FAA as we strive to ensure that the rights of pilots should not be any less than those of ordinary citizens under the law.
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