Impact of FAA’s Potential Downgrade of India and Israel Safety Ratings is Limited

Air India, El Al, Government Regulation

Rumors have been swirling for a couple of weeks that the FAA is about to downgrade the safety ratings of India and Israel from Category 1 to Category 2, and an article in the Wall Street Journal last week saw a couple of emails hit my inbox. This may sound dire, but it’s more of a tool to pressure the countries to shape up their regulatory schemes than it is a warning of imminent safety problems. Let me explain.

The FAA’s International Aviation Safety Assessments (IASA) program focuses on individual countries and has nothing to do with specific airlines. In their own words, the program “focuses on a country’s ability . . . to adhere to international standards and recommended practices for aircraft operations and maintenance established by the United Nation’s technical agency for aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).”

So, this is more about regulatory oversight here. Does it mean that El Al, Air India, and other airlines in those countries are unsafe? No, not at all. This says nothing about individual airline safety practices, but it does say that the oversight from the government may not be enough to properly monitor individual airline safety performance.

Practically, when this happens, carriers from those countries are allowed to keep flying their existing schedule to the US but they aren’t allowed to expand at all. In the past, some countries (notably Venezuela, which is now back to Category 1) have balked that this gives US airlines an unfair advantage since they can continue to grow while the local carriers can’t.

The reality here is that adequate governmental oversight is very important to ensuring a safe aviation system, so this sort of move can be the right thing to do if it’s not used for political purposes. The FAA has taken its own fair share of lumps lately, but it’s still one of the best aviation regulatory bodies by far, so these efforts are only going to help improve safety worldwide.

Bottom line? If the countries do get downgraded to Category 2, that wouldn’t change whether I would fly on airlines like El Al, Air India, or other carriers. If I felt comfortable flying them before, I wouldn’t feel any different now.

Update 12/21 @ 1148a: The FAA has now officially downgraded Israel to Category 2

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8 comments on “Impact of FAA’s Potential Downgrade of India and Israel Safety Ratings is Limited

  1. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and smacks to me of politics (although, admittedly, I am completely unfamiliar with what political chess match between the U.S. and Israel would lead to this). Anybody who has visited Israel can attest to the fact that, from a security standpoint, the Israelis are just about the best in the business, and the safety/security record of flights entering and leaving Israel over the course of the past 20 years or so reflects this. Forgive my ignorance, but are FAA leadership, or at least those individuals who would make such decisions, appointed by the president? If so, do you think that this is part of some larger policy shift regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship ahead of the new presidential administration? I would doubt this, but I’ll ask the question anyway.

    I can’t speak for India, although I’ll be flying there in a few months, albeit on BA. I’ve heard bad things about their domestic operations, though.

  2. Zach – I doubt anyone would argue that aviation in Israel has extremely tight security. However, if the equivalent of the FAA isn’t examining things like auditing records (e.g. checking exactly what maintenance procedures were followed by whom and when on a plane ?) then an airline may possibly believe that it doesn’t need to keep those records in perfect condition – hence the need to have regular audits. This is not to say plane and records won’t be in impeccable condition – just that an airline isn’t always being scrutinised carefully enough by the FAA-equivalent.

  3. http://www.bobbysturgell[dot]org
    It’s classic EEL! Failed FAA Acting Administrator “Bobby” (The Eel) Sturgell is once again trying to blame everyone and everything else but himself for his own awful failures on his way out the door. Not enough de-icer? Sturgell blames natural causes… Labor unions… Who else has Sturgell blamed lately? Congress… The ATCs… Whistle-blowers… “Politics”… “Special Interests”… The pilots… Israel… The airlines… The EEL-Of-Sturgell will even blame useless FAA functionary “colleagues”, as if those aero-publicist hacks actually did any work to begin with. Bye EEL!

  4. John…well, I’m not sure I’d go that far. David went a long way toward clarifying things. If anything, an Obama-appointed agency leadership would be less kind to Israel from a political standpoint than would the current administration (after all, Obama counts anti-Israel activists Zbigniew Brzezinski and George Soros among his advisors and bankrollers, but let’s not make this into a political discussion). On second or third blush, I’m not so sure this is as political as it is simply an automatic process set in motion when other countries’ aviation administrations don’t adhere to what the FAA sees as its standard of precautions. I think your notion of a bitter Bush administration scorched-earth policy is off base. Just my $.02.

  5. Zach:
    1. The FAA has no “standard” other than making money for the private-sector aeromercantalists that FAA considers its sole “customers” and “partners”. Remember that each person in FAA senior management is about to segue out into the private sector. They have each been feathering that nest since “Bobby” Sturgell got into office as Acting FAA Administrator last September, 2007.
    2. Look at the timing. Any Air Traffic Controller, [and there are about 11,000 of them], will tell you that “Bobby” Sturgell has been itching to pull the proverbial pin on the way out. He is about to eject from office. Look at the timing. Follow the money. It’s more than two cents involved.

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