FAA’s Aviation Safety branch is in a sequestration-driven staffing “free fall” and expects to continue shrinking into next year, FAA Deputy Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety John Hickey tells MRO Americas attendees in Atlanta.

According to Hickey, the “significant” impact will be felt most in non-safety sensitive areas, like achieving new certifications.

FAA’s safety group, responsible for setting and enforcing safety standards for all organizations, products, and people in aviation, has about 7,500 staff. Attrition will trim several hundred positions from that figure within a year, Hickey projects, and few of these openeings will filled.

“What we need to do is free fall to reach a staffing level that completely sustains our organization” under sequestration, Hickey says. “Certification services and other support services will suffer greatly.”

Hickey stresses that the aviation system’s safety will not suffer. “Whatever people we have will focus on the safety and oversight of the system,” he says.

Hickey says industry can mitigate the impact of the cuts in several ways. A proven safety management system (SMS), for instance, will help reduce FAA’s oversight burden. “Companies that introduce an SMS that’s sophisticated enough, I can promise you there will be a different type of oversight,” he says. “We’ll have increased confidence . . . to put our resources in areas of higher risk.”

Hickey also champions using FAA’s designee program. Under the program, known as Organization Designation Authorization (ODA), companies set up a mini-organization that verifies compliance on a project that needs FAA approval. Progress is reported to FAA, which then reviews the work.

Widely adopted in the airframe and engine manufacturing industries, Hickey is urging others, such as component manufacturers and repair stations, to establish ODAs, and he’s urging his Flight Standards staff to support such efforts. He emphasizes that ODA applications, and product applications from existing ODA holders, will get a higher priority because they save FAA resources.

Under ODA, “we’re no longer managing individual people, we’re managing a small system,” Hickey says. “We need to expand this.”