Collateral damage, part 2

December 9, 2013

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Gary Crump

Gary Crump

  • Director, AOPA Medical Certification Services 
  • 25 years assisting AOPA members 
  • Former operating room technician and Emergency Medical Technician 
  • Pilot since 1973

During the tenure of a former FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, all of the FAA IT support was realigned into a new division based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that change, the IT employees in Oklahoma City, Okla., were pretty much dedicated to the DIWS project and weren’t distracted by other FAA tasks. That all changed when the new divisional arrangement was created, and the IT support was no longer devoted just to that project.

As a result of the centralization of the IT support structure, progress on the Digital Imaging Workflow System (DIWS) implementation slowed. You can think of the development of this long range project as an interstate highway with lots of on ramps. Along the way toward full implementation, there are milestones of attributes that contribute to the overall functionality of the system. Some of the eventual capabilities include the ability for an aviation medical examiner to view the entire airman history on file at the FAA, the ability of a supervisor to reassign a case to another reviewer to expedite action on the case, and, down the road, the ability for the pilot or the AME to scan records and electronically submit them to the FAA. Each of these enhancements, obviously, has a cost, and with the government’s current funding issues, and the umbrella of sequestration, there's no telling when, or if, we will ever see full implementation of all the functionality.

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In late winter this year, one of those milestones was the migration of the entire system over from a server-based application to a Web-based platform, a move that was thought to improve the overall performance of the system. This was intended to take place over one long weekend in early April. About three weeks prior to this, the decision was made in Washington, D.C., to terminate the Northrop Grumman contract as a “cost savings.”  This decision was made without much input from the primary stakeholders, and as it turned out, proved to be a very costly mistake. At the time, medical certification was ginning along reasonably well, with the FAA’s own internal monitoring indicating the average handling time for a case in review to be about 30 work days. How the FAA calculates that figure is another discussion, but for this one, 30 days translated into about 50 to 70 days from the time an application was processed to the issuance and mailing of the medical certificate to the airman.

The conversion project didn’t go well, Monday morning came and went, the system had major glitches, and the new team that was hired to replace the Northrop Grumman team didn’t really know much about the system, so this past summer, we saw extraordinary delays that exceeded 100 days in many cases.  In short, it was a miserable summer for pilots waiting for both initial and recertification of special issuance authorizations. The FAA was allowed to “rehire” the fired contractors for a short term in August, but the damage was done, and it will take months for the FAA to recover from that combination of poor decision making and execution. 

Just when they were beginning to get a handle on that problem, though, the government shut down occurred and it took 18 days for Congress and the White House to come to an “agreement.”  However, every day the FAA was closed, another 500 to 600 cases showed up in the workflow, and that was in addition to the 40,000 or so cases that were still in queue for review from the spring debacle. We can’t predict what the backlog will be going forward, or how long it will take to get the system caught up.  My prediction is it will be quite a while, well into spring 2014, possibly.

AOPA will continue to work with and for our Pilot Protection Services program participants to soften the blow of this meltdown as much as possible. If you have an upcoming medical exam, or if you are renewing a special issuance that requires FAA review, plan accordingly and get your information in to the FAA 90 days prior to the expiration of your medical.  

Read part one here.

Gary Crump