Posted by: Shaun | April 18, 2008

Revolving Door at the FAA

It seems that in the Federal Aviation Administration, as with other federal regulatory agencies, we’ve left the fox to guard hen house.  The Associated Press has a great story on the revolving door policies that see upper-echelon FAA management serve their time in government before taking lucrative jobs with the airlines they once regulated.

Might this have something to do with the thousands of flights that were canceled in recent weeks after revelations that basic safety inspections weren’t carried out as normal?  The story cites past examples of federal legislators, including all three major presidential candidates, leaning on regulators to cut airlines from their states a break.  No industry, it seems, is without its man or woman in Washington.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should add that my father works for the FAA and, yes, came to the job from an influential spot in the private sector (aircraft mechanic for a regional airline).  Having always been under the impression that airline safety regulations were sacrosanct, I was shocked when he confirmed that it is not uncommon for airlines to use political connections in Congress and with top level FAA management to get around government regulations they consider overly expensive or onerous. The inspectors on the ground aren’t too happy about it (even less so when the public’s aspersion is cast on the whole agency rather than political hacks at the top), but there’s little they can do since their jobs are on the line (though there are exceptions).

To an extent, there must be some overlap between federal regulators and the industries they watch, since firsthand experience is critical to applying the rules wisely.  But we may want to think about tougher ethical standards like mandating a greater amount of time between working in government and working in the sector one used to oversee; or perhaps limiting access private sector jobs where one has to work closely with one’s old government office.

I may be a cynic, but I’ll never make the bet that duty and concern for the public good will overcome greed in every case.

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