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updated 12/17/2010 4:49:31 PM ET 2010-12-17T21:49:31

Government inspections to uncover serious maintenance problems that could cause airline crashes are often delayed for years or miss the biggest risks, according to a government watchdog.

In a report being circulated among key congressional committee members, the Department of Transportation's inspector general identified several weaknesses that undermine a key Federal Aviation Administration airline maintenance oversight program. Unless FAA fixes those weaknesses, the report said, its ability to "effectively oversee the National Airspace System" is lessened.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report on Friday.

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FAA launched the program in 1998 at the 10 largest U.S. airlines. Since then it has expanded to 94 airlines. The airlines are analyzed to see if they have designed an effective overall maintenance program and that they are giving the most attention to the riskiest areas.

FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the agency made several changes in the inspection program that address problems raised by the inspector general, including a process started last spring to track overdue or incomplete assessments and ensure proper follow-up.

"The FAA is confident in its ability to oversee the National Airspace System," Spitaliere said in a statement.

The most important part of the program deals with an airline's overall design of maintenance policies and procedures, and is supposed to be conducted every five years. But the inspections were delayed at all eight major carriers reviewed in the report. Some inspections were allowed to lag nearly eight years.

Carriers reviewed in the report are Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways. Over an eight-year period, FAA inspectors failed to complete on time 207 key inspections.

The inspector general spent more than three years reviewing the program.

"Cracks in the oversight program can prove deadly," said former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall. He noted that the airline industry's fleet is aging, which means more maintenance is needed. "Despite annual reports of deficiencies there doesn't seem to be improvement," he said.

At three FAA offices, the report said more than five years lapsed between inspections to find out if airlines were effective in following FAA safety orders, even though inspectors noted the time lag meant increased risk. Overdue inspections continued even after FAA cut back on inspectors' workload.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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