The nation's top aviation regulator on Thursday faced another fiery round of questioning from lawmakers worried that his agency may be quicker to fix problems of public relations than those of public safety.
The Federal Aviation Administration's cozy regulatory climate with airlines led to the suppression of whistleblower complaints against Southwest Airlines that, once uncovered, led to stepped-up inspection efforts of all carriers' maintenance records and hundreds of planes being grounded in recent weeks.
"We need an FAA that actually fixes problems as they are found rather than one that rushes into a public relations campaign to assure everyone that there isn't a problem," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during the fourth hearing here this month focused on aviation safety.
The agency, under Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell, last month took the rare step of ordering the audit of maintenance records at all domestic airlines following reports of missed safety inspections at Southwest. The Dallas-based 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.
"When I first heard of his plan, I questioned why the agency needed to double-check its work," said Murray, chair of the Senate subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development. "The taxpayers and this subcommittee paid for full compliance the first time."
Sturgell said he sympathized with the hundreds of thousands of air travelers inconvenienced last week alone by the stepped-up inspection work, and apologized for his agency's role in causing the situation.
Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III on Thursday repeated his findings about the FAA's inspection office responsible for Southwest Airlines having "developed an overly collaborative relationship" with the carrier.
"The balance tipped too heavily" to collaboration instead of oversight, Scovel said.
The FAA earlier this month announced a new reporting system designed to make it easier for inspectors to voice concerns and said it was strengthening ethics policies to thwart potential conflicts of interests. Sturgell also said the government will be meeting with Boeing Co. and other aircraft manufacturers to improve the process for carrier compliance when maintenance safety orders are issued.