FAA flaws go beyond Southwest inspections

Friday, April 4, 2008 at 2:51am

Aviation regulators’ weaknesses extend beyond their failure to spot Southwest Airlines Co.’s missed inspections, showing the need for a sweeping air-safety overhaul, a House panel was told yesterday.

Southwest’s lapses “are symptomatic of much deeper problems” at the Federal Aviation Administration, Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, testified in Washington. “FAA relies too heavily on self disclosures and promotes a pattern of excessive leniency at the expense of effective oversight and appropriate enforcement.”

The FAA’s chief safety officer, Nick Sabatini, apologized to the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee “for FAA’s failures in this situation.”

Thursday’s daylong hearing gave more ammunition to lawmakers pressing for FAA changes in the wake of airline maintenance breakdowns. The FAA’s proposed $10.2 million fine against Southwest last month for flying jets after missing inspections thrust its industry oversight into the political spotlight.

“FAA needs to clean house from the top down,” committee Chairman James Oberstar said.

Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, said his panel’s investigation of the agency “raises serious questions about whether higher officials in FAA are carrying out their safety responsibilities for the entire industry.”

Other Carriers

Witnesses reported what they saw as breakdowns at other carriers. A retired FAA inspector who oversaw FedEx Corp. said he was told by his supervisor not to continue an investigation into possible rules violations by the company and a pilot. “I was amazed,” William McNease said in written testimony. FedEx declined to comment.

Sabatini, the FAA’s associate administrator for safety, told the panel that “this is my workforce. I am ultimately responsible for their actions.”

The agency has “done a great deal of soul searching and analysis to determine how the problems developed, how FAA could have prevented them and, most crucial at this point, how we proceed from here,” Sabatini said.

Scovel told lawmakers that “immediate and comprehensive” changes are needed in FAA oversight, including an independent organization to investigate workers’ safety complaints.

The agency also should rotate inspectors who oversee individual airlines to ensure objective oversight and verify that carriers take action on safety issues, Scovel said.

Southwest’s response

In written testimony, Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher and Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said they should have used “better judgment” when they allowed 46 planes to fly after the discovery that the Boeing Co. 737 jets hadn’t gotten required checks for fuselage cracks.

Kelleher and Kelly told lawmakers that the airline’s senior managers should have been consulted on such a “significant issue” but weren’t.

Six days after the FAA proposed fining Southwest, the airline grounded 44 jets while it verified that they underwent required inspections. That forced the carrier to cancel 4 percent of its daily flights, and Kelly met with FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell to brief him on how Southwest was responding to agency directives.

‘Overly Collaborative’

Scovel told lawmakers that the FAA office overseeing Southwest had “an overly collaborative relationship” with the carrier. The FAA repeatedly accepted Southwest’s proposed solutions to compliance issues that weren’t solved, Scovel said.

Four different directives were violated eight times by Southwest since December 2006, he said.

Another witness, retired FAA assistant manager Robert Naccache, said a supervisor who led oversight of Southwest had spent a couple of months in flight training with the airline to help obtain certification to fly a 737.

“I feel this is the most flagrant conflict of interest that I have ever witnessed in my 20-year career in the federal government,” said Naccache, who also worked in the office monitoring Southwest.

The FAA announced an industrywide safety audit on March 18 to determine whether other airlines besides Southwest weren’t meeting government safety directives.

— Bloomberg News

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