Since its inception, the FAA has been primarily concerned with ensuring that the National Airspace System is the safest in the world. While everyone agrees with that goal, not everyone agrees on the best way to accomplish it.

On June 26, 2015, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced a major change in its compliance philosophy in Administrative Order 8000.373. This change in philosophy was controversial at the time, and as we approach the Order’s third anniversary, it remains so.

Prior to 2015, the FAA ensured that its regulations were followed mainly through a system of vigorous enforcement actions. Under the new philosophy, when deviations from the regulations are discovered:

the FAA’s goal is to use the most effective means to return an individual or entity that holds an FAA certificate, approval, authorization, permit or license to full compliance and to prevent recurrence.

The FAA concluded that such deviations:

can most effectively be corrected through root cause analysis and training, education or other appropriate improvements to procedures or training programs for regulated entities, which are documented and verified to ensure effectiveness.

Only where the deviation involves “intentional, reckless, or criminal behavior” should the FAA resort to “strong enforcement.”

The dispute over which enforcement philosophy is most effective seems largely based on how an individual views human nature. If you start with the assumption that people agree that all FAA rules as written further the goals of aviation safety and want to be compliant, then it is safe to assume that encouraging an open dialogue and instructing on how to remedy non-compliance will be effective. If, on the other hand, you assume that a number of people view the regulations as unnecessary or ineffective and non-compliance is not necessarily unsafe, then a “forgiving” attitude will simply be exploited, and only the hammer of strong enforcement can get the job done.

Interestingly, at the recent world airline pilot conference, John Duncan, the director of Flight Standard Service at the FAA, took the view that this is a false dichotomy, and that both philosophies, compliance and enforcement, were important and being employed regularly. According to reports, Mr. Duncan stated that:

Compliance should not be misconstrued as a “kinder, gentler” philosophy. Those who make mistakes get help, and enforcement is used in instances of others unwilling or unable to remedy their problems.

Congress also appears interested in this “philosophical debate,” and may give us the hard data needed to verify or contradict the anecdotal evidence put forward by both sides. At the last minute, Representative Charlie Crist of Florida maneuvered to add an amendment to the recently passed House FAA Reauthorization bill that requires the GAO to conduct a study on “whether or not FAA ‘Compliance Philosophy’ – favoring communication over enforcement – is effective.”

Hopefully, this provision will make its way into the final Reauthorization Act when it is passed this summer. While everyone loves to sit around and discuss philosophy over coffee, in aviation, data is king, and more facts are always helpful.