The recent scandals plaguing the Federal Aviation Administration may demonstrate that the agency needs to address cultural issues that prevent its inspectors from doing their jobs properly.
In March, the FAA disclosed that inspectors had allowed Southwest Airlines to fly planes despite the fact they were overdue for inspection. In testimony April 1, investigators told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that they had alerted supervisors about the issue but were encouraged to look the other way.
The FAA and Congress are enacting a number of measures to address the situation. Citing concerns that inspectors are too cozy with the airlines, Congress is looking to pass legislation that would forbid inspectors from going to work at an airline for two years.
On its end, the agency has addressed the issue by establishing a Safety Information Reporting System, by which it will be more difficult for managers to overlook or dismiss potential safety issues raised by inspectors.
But the relationship issue is only part of the problem, says Tom Brantley, national president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents the inspectors.
"Inspectors don’t feel like they are being supported by management," he says. "It’s worse than I have ever seen it."
This mistrust of management seems to pervade the organization, according to employee satisfaction surveys conducted by the agency. In the 2006 employee satisfaction survey, 64 percent of respondents indicated that they distrust FAA management.
Two-thirds of respondents indicated that they had not seen a positive change in the agency’s emphasis on managing people over the previous two years.
To address this issue, the FAA needs to focus more on frontline manager training, observers say.
"When employees talk about leadership, they are usually not talking about the head of the organization, but about their immediate supervisors," says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. Palguta helps put together the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government list, in which the FAA ranked 204 out of 222 agencies.
"The agency needs to make sure that these supervisors are getting the constant training and development they need to make sure they are getting the message right to their employees," he says.