Washington — A warning flag is up over the nuts and bolts of airline safety. Nearly 40 percent of commercial aviation accidents in recent years may have been the result of structural or mechanical failures. The percentage of aviation accidents attributable to such failures appears to be increasing.
The airline industry has primary responsibility for aircraft maintenance and crew training, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees the job. The debate has now begun on whether or not the FAA inspection force is sufficiently large, skilled, and adversarial to do its part.
FAA officials say the agency is putting a new emphasis on annual in-depth inspections of the operations and maintenance practices of the two dozen or more major airlines. ``We have a team looking at Eastern right now,'' says FAA spokesman John Leyden. He also notes that a special FAA surveillance of the operations of Arrow Air is under way. Arrow Air is the charter company that owned the DC-8 which crashed in Newfoundland Dec. 12.
A number of crashes this year, including engine-related accidents in England last August and in Milwaukee last September, suggest that more diligent maintenance and repairs might have made a major difference. As a result, the FAA next month will begin an intensive inspection of major airline jet-engine repair and maintenance facilities.
Currently only 674 FAA inspectors watch over some 4,000 commercial air carriers. Another 300 inspectors will be added to their ranks over the next three years. But some safety advocates say the number must be doubled again for any effective ``hands on'' job of checking.
``Obviously you can't have someone . . . looking over the shoulder of every mechanic whenever a tire is changed,'' comments FAA Deputy Administrator Richard H. Jones. ``It's really sort of a trust.''
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman James E. Burnett Jr. says FAA inspectors must learn to be ``a bit suspicious -- if not of somebody's honesty -- at least of their objectivity.'' He suggests that an arm's length relationship is better than a partnership.
Many newer airlines contract out maintenance work. Others have bought inexpensive, older planes to get started. The evolution of the hub-and-spoke system, in which passengers from outlying areas are ferried to major cities for long-distance trips, has generally meant increased wear on the structure of planes from more frequent takeoffs and landings and less time available for upkeep and repairs.
Safety experts say maintenance under such circumstances needs to be more frequent and often more intensive to catch less visible problems such as metal fatigue.
``I just think the whole level of the inspection system has got to be increased,'' says Henry Duffy, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.
There are signs the FAA is getting tougher.
Last year after a wave of commuter-airline accidents, the agency launched an inspection of 327 carriers, including all major airlines. The vast majority were found to be complying with federal safety regulations. Sixteen carriers were forced to cut back operations until corrections were made.
Even American Airlines, currently the most profitable US carrier, was fined a hefty $1.5 million for maintenance violations. One of the 26 instances cited was failure to correct a lavatory water leak. Though generally not a high priority item, the leaking water formed a block of ice that pulled free and sheared off the right engine of a 727 flying over New Mexico. American has since corrected its problems and is hiring another 500 mechanics.
FAA officials point out that no less than 52 carriers have been permanently or temporarily grounded since Donald Engen, a former NTSB official, took over as the agency's administrator a year and a half ago.
But Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D) of California, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, says he is little comforted by news of groundings.
``It seems to me if we have to ground an airline, we've probably let the problem go on too long,'' says the congressman. ``Why didn't we catch it earlier and why wasn't something done about it? My feeling is we're inspecting the airlines inadequately.''
It was in reponse to Representative Mineta's request that the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report last August on FAA inspection practices. It showed a great disparity in the frequency and substance of inspections for different carriers with a similar number of operations.
``The FAA pretty well knows its flock,'' explains FAA Deputy Administrator Jones. ``That's why we sometimes pay more attention to those who would tend to take shortcuts.''
But FAA officials also know such unevenness is hard to justify under federal scrutiny. And they are now scrambling to try to standardize the agency's inspection procedures even as the GAO, at Mineta's request, proceeds with a follow-up study on why the agency's past inspection practices have varied so widely. Second of five articles. Tomorrow: controlling the crowded skies.