Straighten up and fly right: A parable of public engagement with the FAA


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a program designed to help the public seek clarity in regulatory application. So, if you happen to be certificated by the FAA you should definitely read this.

If you’re not, this story is still for you. Trust me.

The set up

The FAA has multiple personalities. Aviation professionals working in different areas of the nation and world experience its oversight in completely different ways. Regulatory applications and government interactions are so varied from inspector to inspector, office to office and region to region it is difficult to believe that a single agency is at work. The flying community needs a tool to ensure uniform, fact-based application of law and policy.

The Consistency and Standardization Initiative (CSI) is that tool. The program is a blueprint for anybody working with, for or around government. In fact, it should be an inspiration for what “we the people” really means…in a very specific and quite boring way.

The process outlines an avenue for certificate holders—the entities that have been approved by the government to perform aviation-related operations—to address regulatory issues or disagreements starting with local inspectors on through the regions, the directors of the headquarters offices and eventually the associate administrator for aviation safety. From the field to the Wright Building and every level in between, the procedure calls for an exchange of documentation, data and interpretation to enable a clear, factually-driven final determination.

The hype

The CSI program is a model government mechanism for members of the public to deal with a regulatory body.


It’s noble in spirit. Formerly known as the too-businesslike “Customer Service Initiative,” the underlying purpose of the CSI is to put safety first by providing FAA certificate holders a method to systemically address disagreements with local inspectors. For an agency that depends heavily on often-independent-minded individuals working in district and regional offices, the mechanism is an opportunity to actually enforce the reasonable expectation of clarity in decision-making.

It’s simple in principle. If a “stakeholder” disagrees with a decision from an FAA representative, the program provides a series of steps for the affected party to take the issue all the way to the top. Along the way, the government promises the petitioner will get direct meetings and negotiation; one-on-one engagement between regulator and regulated in order to find common ground.

It’s painstaking in reality. Stakeholders can spend years waiting, responding, following up, waiting some more, clarifying confusion and overcoming procedural hurdles. Not to mention the repetitive need to remind the government of how its own process should work. (In essence, a petitioner needs to ensure consistency and standardization in the program that’s supposed to help the public ensure those traits in the regulations.) Getting the right answer takes time, perseverance and the will to reject all the wrong ones.

The story

Imagine you run a business that performs maintenance on helicopters. You always work to a litany of manuals, service bulletins and technical instructions. Your entire collection of “how-to” guides is based on FAA-approved engineering information developed by the original designer of the rotorcraft.

Your business adheres to every instruction and safely returns every part to its original or properly-altered condition. You’re a model aviation-community citizen.

Your problem is that your local inspector—the face of the FAA in day-to-day life—decides you can’t always use those manuals without additional engineering approval. They are adequate for “minor” repairs, but for anything classified as “major” (the agency has guidance for making this determination) your “methods, techniques and practices” require engineering support.

You do your homework. You check the Code of Federal Regulations and consult your friendly regulatory compliance experts in Washington and learn the rules don’t require an additional approval of the same engineering information. After repeated disagreements locally, you seek assistance through the CSI process and get the government equivalent of a “you’re right” from the agency: You can keep doing your good work without going back to the FAA for repeated engineering approvals.

Play a patriotic tune and celebrate participatory government … then get back to work.

Of course, that’s the simple, bedtime story version. In reality, the exchanges lasted six years and required countless hours of research, communication and correction with the various levels of the agency.

While we were solving that one problem, American voters cast hundreds of millions of ballots, Congress and the White House changed hands and the FAA went through four different administrators. The visible wheels of government and the machinations of American politics were turning with every 24-hour news cycle, but the real work of “we the people” was done via an unending series of letters, calls and conferences regarding one interpretation of one aspect of one title of the regulations through which the American people are governed.

The moral

Government depends on individuals. Dealing with it may not be sexy or attention-grabbing like picketing in front of the Supreme Court or marching down the National Mall while singing ballads of change. In reality, the work of an active citizen is actually the thoughtful long-term consideration of the entire body of the government’s work through its impact on an individual.

This is “we the government,” at its stultifying best. This is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Exchange a Series of Meticulously-Cited and Carefully-Referenced Missives with a Regulatory Agency.” If a film told that story, I’d watch it.

Now, go consult your friendly regulatory-compliance experts and start writing your own story.