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Lawmakers say FAA testimony 'misleading'

Three House members on Tuesday charged Federal Aviation Administration officials with presenting "misleading" testimony about airline maintenance.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three House members on Tuesday charged Federal Aviation Administration officials with presenting "misleading" testimony about airline maintenance.

"Your testimony conveyed inaccurate and misleading information about whether aviation safety inspectors and managers ... were ordered to conduct special meetings with all airlines, repair stations and other regulated entities to deliver and discuss" the FAA's Customer Service Initiative, according to a letter sent by Democrat Reps. James Oberstar, Jerry Costello and Peter DeFazio.

The lawmakers questioned inconsistencies about the FAA officials' testimony last week about how regulators would implement a 2004 customer service initiative.

The new rules were to be delivered, discussed and documented with airlines and other regulated entities within 60 days of a February memorandum, but the FAA officials testified that the process could occur "during routine visits over the next year," the letter states.

The letter is addressed to: Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety; James J. Ballough, director of FAA's Flight Standards Service; and Thomas Stuckey, then manager of the Flight Standards Division for the Southwest region, who has been reassigned since the Thursday hearing.

A spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said no decision has been made on what further steps the committee will take. Spokesmen for the FAA and the Transportation Department were not immediately available to comment Tuesday afternoon.

The two FAA inspectors who exposed maintenance and inspection problems at Southwest Airlines were at the center of last week's hearing. They told lawmakers their jobs were threatened and their reports of noncompliance were ignored for years by superiors.

Committee Chairman Oberstar said then that as long as the FAA viewed the airlines as customers "that culture of safety will not take hold and is not going to permeate the organization." Sabatini assured the committee he would immediately work to correct that internal problem of perception.

Last month, the FAA took the rare step of ordering the audit of maintenance records at all domestic carriers following reports of missed safety inspections at Dallas-based Southwest. The airline was hit with a record $10.2 million fine for continuing to fly dozens of Boeing 737s, which carried an estimated 145,000 passengers, that hadn't been inspected for cracks in their fuselages. Southwest has said it will appeal the penalty.

Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said the airline increased the number, scope and frequency of audits and implemented more stringent requirements of maintenance plan changes after the problems were discovered. The airline will take further action after independent investigators, the FAA and Southwest staff finish their reviews, he said.

Costello, who represents Illinois, chairs the aviation subcommittee, and Oregon's DeFazio leads the highways and transit subcommittee.