Unusual Attitudes: Is the FAA Pulling a FAST One?

How the Wings pilot-proficiency program became a tremendous waste of taxpayer money.

Remember those executive orders President Donald Trump issued early this year aimed at simplifying and cutting costs in government? My favorite was the one requiring agencies to repeal two existing regulations before creating a new one. Close on the heels of that came “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda,” which directed agencies to evaluate existing regulations and make recommendations for their repeal, replacement or modification.

If the FAA is serious about cost cutting and eliminating outdated, unnecessary and ineffective jobs (eliminate a government job — really?) it might look at a historic but expensive program that actually has little impact on aviation safety. It’s something I’m pretty familiar with, having spent 20 of my 28 years in the FAA working with the old FAA Safety Program. Today, after about 12 years of fits and starts, it’s grown and morphed into a bureaucratic monstrosity called the FAASTeam.

Now, hear me out. I’m not belittling safety programs or saying that recurrent training isn’t important. There’s little doubt that the current flight-review requirement (FAR 61.56) is a bare minimum and insurance companies have far stricter requirements for their insureds who fly sophisticated airplanes. The plain vanilla flight review is pretty loosely interpreted and often handled as a formality, a token ride pilots take every two years from the same friendly flight instructor.

But the FAASTeam version of the Pilot Proficiency Program, which is touted as an effective substitute for the flight review … isn’t.

You probably recall the original Wings program, where pilots could satisfy the flight-review requirement by voluntarily taking three hours of dual and attending a safety seminar within two years. You even got a genuine certificate and an ungenuine set of pseudo military wings with stars, wreaths, “rubies,” “sapphires” and “diamonds.” The program was trashed and reinvented in 2007, replaced by this FAASTeam version that’s cumbersome, awkward, unpopular and ineffective. You need to be pretty computer savvy, and it involves multiple levels and requirements that are unnecessarily complex and confusing. I find it hard to understand why the FAA thought they could make Wings more popular by making it more complicated.

Painful as it was, I gritted my teeth and actually read the current FAA Orders (1100.1 and 8900.1) that deal with the mandates and structure of this FAASTeam program. Understand, these positions are totally administrative; job descriptions for all FAASTeam employees, from top to bottom, tell how they should manage the pilot-proficiency (Wings) program and promote “many valuable awards programs” (Aviation Maintenance Technician, Charles Taylor Master Mechanic, Wright Brothers Master Pilot and General Aviation Industry Awards, plus annual national awards such as Aviation Maintenance Technician, Avionics Technician, Certificated Flight Instructor and FAASTeam Representative of the Year).

The National FAASTeam Headquarters staff has three national administrators and 10 national managers. Then there are 14 regional “points of contact,” who serve as liaisons between headquarters and local district offices. Finally, attached to FSDOs are 110 FAASTeam program managers. So headquarters people develop and provide policy and guidance, regional points of contact “liaise” with district office program managers and those managers recruit volunteers (FAASTeam representatives, lead representatives and service providers) to do the work of carrying out the National FAASTeam’s program. In the words of the Order, “Representatives [volunteers] will provide outreach to the aviation community and share their technical expertise and professional knowledge.”

The FAASTeam version of the Pilot Proficiency Program, which is touted as an effective substitute for the flight review … isn’t.

Through the magic of cyberspace, and because there’s no actual hands-on work required, the national, regional and FSDO FAASTeam employees can, and often do, operate remotely from wherever they prefer to live. Remember, “local” program managers don’t fly with Wings applicants, nor are they tasked with conducting seminars. Any CFI can give the required dual instruction (at normal rates), and those volunteer “civilian” FAASTeam representatives are supposed to arrange and put on the seminars — granted, some are also available online. Neither do the local program managers prepare the award packages. They simply encourage volunteer representatives to promote the idea and then forward nomination packages, which they (hopefully) receive to regional and headquarters levels.

As to the efficacy — i.e., the popularity — of the FAASTeam program, here’s the ugly truth: As of this writing, FAA statistics show 29,540 out of 584,362 active pilots have earned a phase in the program. That’s about 5 percent of the pilot population. Other numbers bump the percentage closer to 8 percent, and we all know that numbers are slippery and statistics can be twisted and manipulated, but I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the Wings part — the meat and potatoes of the FAASTeam program — isn’t exactly a roaring success.

As Barry Schiff noted in his recent article “Broken Wings” (AOPA Pilot, June 2017), the FAA’s claim that the Wings program has a significant impact on safety is problematic. The pilots who attend seminars are usually the most conscientious and least likely to have accidents, so it’s reasonable to assume they don’t need training as much as pilots who don’t attend.

“Wings participants,” Schiff says, “probably would have a better safety record even if they didn’t participate.”

I’ll add a personal observation. In my day, pilots who participated in the seminars were mostly the same crowd, often relatively low-time, inexperienced, inactive or occasional fliers.

While a few district program managers still like to get out of the office to make presentations, as one volunteer representative said, “I’m dismayed by this safety program and the absolute waste of money. One of the FPMs [managers] in our FSDO is such an embarrassment that I cringe at his coming to any program in the area.”

You can look at the FAASTeam website, click on any state and find impressively large numbers of volunteer representatives. But an FAA program manager in a Midwest FSDO told me three of his 79 volunteers are active — and he doesn’t think that’s unusual.

Pilots purchase the required dual instruction from real, live CFIs and, interestingly (no, appallingly), FAASTeam operations district program managers aren’t even permitted to participate in the FAA’s flight program. John Duncan, head of Flight Standards in Washington, has decreed that unless inspectors conduct flight tests, flying airplanes isn’t part of their job. So unless these “flying-safety experts” rent or buy their own flying machines, they’re relegated to the status of has-beens (and, in some cases, never-weres).

An FAA program manager in a Midwest FSDO told me three of his 79 volunteers are active — and he doesn’t think that’s unusual.

Then I researched what General Schedule pay grades and Core Compensation bands the FAA (or, rather, the Office of Personnel Management) authorizes for FAASTeam positions. Get ready, here are your tax dollars at work:

Starting at the bottom, on the district office level, a FAASTeam manager is at the GS-14 level. A GS-14, Step 5 (halfway up the automatic pay raise ladder), with an average “locality pay” supplement, earns $124,000 per year. There are, you’ll remember, 110 of them. The 14 regional point of contact FAASTeamers are in the Core Compensation J level (a step up from GS grades), which also starts at $124,000. And the 13 national administrators and national FAASTeam managers are at a K level, where the salary starts at $150,000 — but is likely more.

So we’re paying FAA FAASTeam employees, at a conservative estimate, a total of $17.33 million to administer — only administer! — a program used by 5 to 8 percent of the active-pilot population. This dollar figure, by the way, doesn’t include administrative, training, travel, hardware, software or contract expenses. I think it’s a safe guess that the FAASTeam program budget is somewhere around $30 million annually.

So, although the cost to the FAA for putting on seminars and providing dual instruction is zero, the agency spends a huge sum for each pair of those new little wings it awards.

Maybe it’s past time for the FAA to get out of the wings-and-awards business and leave recurrent training to the alphabet groups and private industry.