The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will tighten oversight of airline safety after aircraft groundings at big carriers, but will not absolve airlines of responsibility for monitoring their own safety, the FAA's top official said on Thursday.
"I do not want the FAA to be the quality control unit for each airline," Robert Sturgell, acting FAA administrator, told a Senate appropriations subcommittee. "I want them to check quality control."
Sturgell was questioned about maintenance lapses in FAA oversight at Southwest Airlines Co. in March that triggered closer scrutiny of all airlines. Stepped up industrywide checks revealed problems at American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp, Delta Air Lines Inc, and other carriers and led to hundreds of planes being grounded.
Big airlines grounded mostly older Boeing Co 737s and MD-80s over the past month to reinspect them for structural and wiring problems. Airlines canceled roughly 4,000 flights, but the worst disruption was at American, which grounded 300 planes last week.
"Passengers are angry and upset. I am very concerned," said Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on transportation.
Concerns over the safety of Southwest planes were brought to light by FAA whistle-blowers, who took the information to Congress.
A follow-up investigation by House of Representatives Transportation Committee and Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel revealed what he called an "overly collaborative" relationship at Southwest between airline maintenance personnel and FAA management at the agency's Dallas office regarding compliance with FAA safety directives.
After missed inspections for fuselage cracks on Southwest jets were revealed in March, Scovel said the FAA had not verified the carrier's compliance with FAA safety directives since 1999. Scovel said the FAA also had not completed 21 key safety inspections at Southwest over the past five years. As of Tuesday, Scovel said four still had not been done.
Airlines are permitted to self-report compliance through an FAA system, the reliability of which has been questioned in the past. It crunches data, tracks trends, and helps to identify risks and safety priorities.
Scovel said the inspector general's office had in the past identified "systemwide" problems with the voluntary program, and recommended closer oversight. But, he told Murray's committee, the FAA had not responded satisfactorily.
Sturgell said its follow-up review of industry compliance with FAA safety orders was 99 percent satisfactory. He has promised closer in-house oversight of inspection schedules but is wary of calls for a "get tough" policy.
Airline self-reporting underpins much of FAA oversight, and the agency says it is realistic and valuable, despite the problems of the past month.
Sturgell said voluntary self-reporting ensures a stream of important data and prevents "driving safety issues underground." He said he did not want to return to a time when signs in aircraft hangers warned workers not to speak with FAA staff. Silence, Sturgell said, can be catastrophic.
He denied assertions of agency complacency and disputed Scovel's claims of chronic safety problems resulting from noncompliance with safety regulations. He said agency inspectors were stretched, but the airlines should continue to review their own performance and report results.