The FAA appointed Ali Bahrami to head its Aviation Safety division. Formerly a senior air safety manager with a 24-year career at the government agency, he was more recently a vice president at the major lobbying organization for the biggest aerospace companies.
Airplanes don’t have revolving doors, but the Federal Aviation Administration evidently does. A former agency veteran, more recently a point man for the aerospace industry, is now the top FAA safety regulator.
Ali Bahrami headed the FAA’s important Seattle office before ending a 24-year FAA career to work as a vice president at the lobbying organization for the biggest aerospace companies. Now he’s moving back to the FAA as chief of its Aviation Safety division.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, hired Bahrami this week for the Washington, D.C.-based position. The agency said in a statement that Bahrami’s “depth of experience and collaborative work with industry supports our mission to advance aviation safety. … We are fortunate to have a person of his caliber back at the FAA.”
During his previous time at the FAA, Bahrami led efforts to delegate more safety oversight to the airplane and systems manufacturers themselves, a push necessitated by the agency’s lack of manpower to police a global supply chain.
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In his Seattle-based role managing the FAA division responsible for operational safety of airliners in the U.S., Bahrami oversaw both the certification of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the 2013 grounding of the jet, just a year after it entered service, following the severe overheating of batteries on two flights.
Bahrami’s office had 20 to 25 staffers working full time on the 787’s certification and so it had to rely in large part on 950 engineers who are paid by Boeing but work as FAA “authorized representatives” to oversee and approve the certification of Boeing jets.
Some inside the FAA are critical of this trend toward increased delegation of oversight and aren’t happy about Bahrami’s new appointment.
One FAA safety engineer, who asked not to be identified, to preserve his job, said Bahrami was “very pro industry” when implementing the FAA’s push for more safety inspections to be handled by the manufacturers. He predicted that giving Bahrami the top safety position will lead to “more industry control” of safety regulation.
Less than three months after the 787 was allowed back in the air in April 2013, Bahrami moved to Washington, D.C., as vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association of America (AIA), which represents some 300 aerospace and defense companies. Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg is the AIA’s current board chairman.
Testifying before Congress that year, Bahrami made the case that in an era of restricted FAA budgets and manpower, the agency needed to collaborate more with industry in the process of certifying airplanes.
More recently, Bahrami voiced the aerospace industry’s concern over President Donald Trump’s executive order freezing new regulations for 60 days and requiring the elimination of two regulations for every new one. That blanket decree briefly halted the FAA’s ability to issue airworthiness directives.
“While we strongly support President Trump’s push to trim excessive, unnecessary and costly regulations, a balanced approach … is needed,” Bahrami said in February. “The requirement that each government agency independently comply with the executive order could severely hamper the FAA’s ability to maintain the safety of the air transportation system.”
Kenneth Quinn, former chief counsel at the FAA and now chair of the aviation practice at influential law firm Baker & McKenzie, representing major airlines and aerospace companies, said, “To be in a top safety position, you have to have extensive industry experience.”
“Bahrami knows safety. He knows certification. He’s eminently well qualified,” Quinn said.
Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and now a lawyer and an aviation safety analyst with CNN, said U.S. airlines’ safety record in the past 10 years has greatly improved from previous decades, for which Bahrami can take some credit given his previous long tenure at the FAA.
“On the revolving door, it’s been going since the creation of the FAA and the DOT so it is not unusual. AIA has tremendous clout at the FAA, so I am not surprised,” Schiavo said. “I just hope Mr. Bahrami does a good job to continue the good trends of the carriers in the U.S.”