Saturday, May 23, 2009 | 2:07 a.m.
A federal airline safety program that began as a way to reduce accidents devolved into an ineffective mess and, worse, turned into what airline workers came to understand as way of avoiding discipline if they made errors.
These were conclusions of an audit released this month by the Transportation Department.
Known as ASAP, the Aviation Safety Action Program began in the mid-1990s as a demonstration project and went industrywide in 2000. It was one of the programs recommended by a commission on airline safety led by then-Vice President Al Gore.
The goal was to stop accidents before they happen by way of a partnership atmosphere — not an adversarial relationship — between the Federal Aviation Administration and pilots. The program later expanded to include other airline employees, including mechanics and flight attendants.
Key to its success, it was thought, would be the freedom that airline workers would have to report potential safety problems. As long as no aviation rules were deliberately violated, potential threats to safety could be reported without fear of anyone facing discipline.
The idea was good but its success depended entirely on its being properly managed. The audit, however, stated that the FAA has been “ineffective” in its implementation of the program.
One problem is that ASAP administrators accept reports from employees about accidents, absolving the employees from discipline. Yet the program was set up to hear safety concerns before accidents happen. Another agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, investigates all accidents. The audit made it clear that ASAP should not be misused as an amnesty program.
Another problem the audit found is that ASAP reports, as currently submitted, are not effective for spotting trends throughout the airline industry that could pose safety problems. Evaluating such trends and acting upon them were among the main objectives of the program.
The audit went on for pages, identifying ways in which this program has gone wrong. The FAA should take the audit seriously, and get this program working as it was originally envisioned.