Image: Fireworks on the Hill
Lawrence Jackson  /  AP
FAA safety inspector Charalambe Bobby Boutris, left, other inspectors and officials from major U.S. airlines testified on Capitol Hill last week.
By Travel writer contributor
updated 4/8/2008 9:58:25 AM ET 2008-04-08T13:58:25

Wow, who knew hearings of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee could be so dramatic? Between the reports of corporate misconduct, government complicity and alleged death threats against whistleblowers, I half-expected to see the specter of Karen Silkwood take the stand.

But, no, last week’s hearing wasn’t about working conditions at a plutonium-production facility in Oklahoma circa 1974. Instead, it was about the current state of aircraft inspections and the inner — and potentially inappropriate — workings of the relationship between the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The testimony from several FAA safety inspectors was nothing if not damning: Ignored warnings, suppressed reports, managerial harassment and thinly veiled threats of professional consequences for reporting violations. And while the underlying safety of flying wasn’t in question, the clear implication was that FAA’s safety-inspection system has been seriously compromised.

From oversight to overlooked
Ostensibly, last week’s hearing was convened to address FAA’s reasons for allowing Southwest Airlines to continue flying aircraft after they should have been grounded for maintenance and inspection. More than 40 planes were flown for nine months in 2006 and 2007, despite missing required inspections for fuselage cracks.

The lapse prompted FAA to assess a civil penalty of $10.2 million against the airline, but not until a year later. Within days, Congressman Oberstar announced plans for last week’s hearing; Southwest grounded 38 active planes (six planes were found to have cracks); and questions were being asked about FAA’s inspection system as a whole.

“Our investigation uncovered a pattern of regulatory abuse,” said Oberstar when announcing the hearing. “What is so disturbing is that many FAA inspectors have given up reporting failures by the carriers because there is such a cozy relationship between FAA management and airline management.”

The problem dates back to FAA’s 2003 Customer Service Initiative (CSI), which gave airlines the right to request an upper-level review of any inspector’s decision. Since then, say observers, there’s been a noticeable shift from overseeing the airlines to accommodating them. Even the name — Customer Service Initiative — suggests an overly close relationship.

“The airlines are not ‘customers’,” said a clearly irritated Oberstar. “The FAA’s only customer is the air traveling public.”

Too close for comfort — or not close enough
Specific incidents aside, the fact remains that the FAA inspection system is not the hands-on, feet-on-the-tarmac system that many in the flying public assume it is. Generally speaking, FAA doesn’t even inspect planes; rather, airline employees inspect company aircraft and complete paperwork that is then reviewed by agency staffers.

Under the system, airlines are encouraged to report violations of FAA’s Airworthiness Directives (ADs) voluntarily in exchange for avoiding fines or disciplinary action. Unfortunately, given the thousands of ADs involved and the economic pressures the airlines face, mistakes get made, deadlines get missed and problems go unreported.

And it doesn’t help that more and more airplane maintenance is being done by outside contractors. According to a 2007 report by the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation (DOT), 64 percent of airline maintenance dollars were outsourced in 2006, up from 37 percent 10 years earlier.

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The report also noted that the number of FAA-certified repair stations in foreign countries more than doubled — from 344 to 698 — between 1994 and 2007. And while it emphasized that the issue is not where maintenance is conducted, but how it’s conducted, there’s simply no way FAA inspectors can visit every facility on a regular basis.

“If we’re having trouble overseeing carriers in this country, how can we effectively oversee carriers that are outsourcing their maintenance?” asked Douglas Peters, one of the FAA inspectors who originally blew the whistle on the situation at Southwest.

Safe planes, but a questionable system
The bigger question, of course, is whether the Southwest situation was an isolated incident or evidence of systemic problems at FAA. Several of those who testified suggested the latter, citing management complacency and a revolving door between the airlines and the agency. And while there’s no evidence that the Southwest situation has been repeated elsewhere, even Nicholas Sabatini, FAA’s associate administrator for safety, admitted the problem of lax enforcement “could potentially be systemic.”

Given that, it’s hardly surprising that FAA undertook an inspection audit last month or that several airlines grounded hundreds of planes for re-inspection and repairs. The audit, which covered 2,400 ADs at 117 carriers, showed the airlines were in 99-percent compliance and unveiled several initiatives designed to strengthen the agency’s commitment to public safety.

“We are currently experiencing the safest period in aviation history,” reiterated Robert Sturgell, FAA’s acting administrator. “However, we have found ways to increase the accountability of all parties — the FAA included — and strengthen both the reporting role and the regulatory process.”

Maybe so, but I think Douglas Peters may have summed up the situation more succinctly when he said that he didn’t believe that FAA could be trusted to police itself and that continuing outside scrutiny was crucial: “It didn’t have to come to this — or maybe it did.”

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