Staffing Challenges

Congressionally mandated budget cuts that prompted the FAA to put a hiring freeze in place created an additional challenge for the safety agency's inspector workforce, which was already hampered by an ineffective staffing model, a government audit found.

A Transportation Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) examination of the FAA's Flight Standards inspector staffing model concluded that the process is “faulty” due to “incomplete, inaccurate and outdated data.” The result: FAA's system for assigning inspectors to certificate holders—including airlines and repair stations—hasn't improved since a 2006 congressionally mandated study by the National Research Council (NRC)found significant shortcomings.

The FAA rolled out a new version of its staffing model—the Office of Aviation Safety Staffing Tool and Reporting System (Astars)—based on the NRC study—on Oct. 1, 2009. The model, run every six months, is supposed to help FAA leadership determine how to allocate its nearly 4,000-inspector workforce among its 105 regional offices.

OIG's evaluation of the model—from May 2011-March 2013 and involving FAA personnel from 28 regional offices—found several shortcomings, including poor-quality data. Examples include not updating the model when airlines add or drop line stations, which creates an inaccurate picture of where operations requiring oversight are being conducted.

A bigger challenge is that the model is not up-to-speed when it comes to factoring in nuances between different carriers, including disparate types of aircraft within specific fleets.

Like most data-driven models, Astars follows the garbage-in, garbage-out axiom, leaving FAA leadership reluctant to use the model's results as a basis for staffing requests. At the regional level, managers rely on guidance that the FAA deemed inadequate in 1995.

“Until these underlying data problems are resolved, the true staffing needs of FAA offices will remain unknown,” OIG noted.

OIG made seven recommendations to the FAA on how to improve the model, and the agency agreed with them, noting it is making progress on each.

Even an effective model will not fix the more pressing staffing problem. The agency's Aviation Safety Div. lost nearly 300 positions from Oct. 1, 2012, through April 30, 2013, due to a combination of attrition and a hiring freeze. The reason for the latter stems from mandated budget cuts that—barring further action—are in place through 2022.

Lawmakers, faced with a backlash over FAA proposals to shutter air traffic control towers and cut other vital services, gave the safety agency a bit of a reprieve for 2013, allowing it to use money from its airport fund for other budgetary needs. But the hiring freeze remains, so the FAA continues to lose key staffers in an effort to keep the budget in line.