Washington — Can the so-called extra margin of safety in commercial airline maintenance that existed in pre-regulation days be restored? Yes, the experts say. But only through:
More Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors. Critics say that until the number climbs to pre-deregulation levels, the quality of maintenance will be difficult to measure.
Better trained, more experienced FAA inspectors. The General Accounting Office says that by 1988 some 40 percent of the inspector force will have less than three years' experience.
Closer enforcement of existing regulations. A number of lesser regulations, not considered safety related, have apparently not been enforced in jet engine repair shops, and perhaps elsewhere.
Education of airlines. The industry is expected to make improved maintenance a priority in response to closer enforcement of regulations, fines, and seminars.
Self-policing. Current programs designed to help an airline keep an eye on its own maintenance capabilities are being reemphasized.
Competition has pressured airlines to cut expenses in all areas. It has pushed down the share of revenues spent on maintenance since deregulation. Poor record keeping exists within maintenance programs even at some larger, better-managed airlines.
How can maintenance procedures and inspection programs be tightened?
``It simply demands more [FAA] oversight,'' says Edward Wood, director of engineering at the Flight Safety Foundation. Mr. Wood believes there will be a window of vulnerability in maintenance until the FAA can add enough trained inspectors.
The biggest key to better maintenance, most experts agree, is forcing airlines to pursue maintenance programs as vigorously as they do profits. The way to accomplish that, they say, is through tougher enforcement of existing regulations -- and education.
Strong enforcement of rules will be possible only as the FAA makes a planned increase of 700 inspectors during the next three years. Training, qualifications, and experience levels will be a problem for some time.
The General Accounting Office has said the FAA must train its inspectors better and find inspector candidates who have a greater chance of making the grade after training.
If a particular airline knows its FAA inspector is not highly qualified, the airline might try to ``put one over on him,'' Wood says. ``What is needed is to hold these carriers' feet to the fire.''
Fortunately, the FAA has found new energy to do all this, having recently received stronger White House backing. The agency had been hit hard by severe manpower and budget cuts. Now, while it is under intense pressure from Congress to do better, it is starting late and scrambling to catch up with an industry that has undergone astonishing growth.
``We have a new group [of airline executives] coming on that maybe didn't fully understand the `regs' as well as some of the veterans who had been running the airlines,'' says Raymond Ramakis, manager of the aircraft maintenance division of the FAA's Office of Flight Standards.
Mr. Ramakis says he thinks the industry is responding to increased recent FAA enforcement efforts and fines for rules violations. But he also thinks that ``there is a need to treat all the airlines equitably. Each inspector has to enforce the regs the same way.''
To do this, the FAA has standardized many of its inspection procedures to eliminate some of the regional differences in rules enforcement. It has also invited maintenance managers and executives from hundreds of large and small airlines to come to a series seminars focusing on:
Deferred maintenance. Too many planes are flying regularly with broken parts or instruments for longer periods.
Analysis and surveillance of fleet aircraft. Better staffing would help this self-policing program, which is aimed at helping the airline and FAA assess air worthiness of fleet planes, quality of maintenance, and contract maintenance.
Improvement of internal instruction manuals and maintenance records, many of which are consistently out of date.
Reliability programs. These now-neglected programs analyze maintenance records, engine records, pilot reports, and mechanics' reports to find potential safety hazards.
Contract maintenance. Any misconceptions about the responsibilities of airlines that pay someone else to do their aircraft maintenance need to be cleared up.
Reliability programs are a current method of self-enforcing FAA regulations. Some experts would like to see even stronger ``self-policing'' approaches within the industry.
``I think there's a lot more the [airline] industry can do to regulate itself, to ensure the accuracy of its own,'' says Charles Miller, former aviation-safety bureau chief for the National Transportation Safety Board.
``I think it has to be recognized that you can't depend upon government inspection alone to provide the level of safety the public demands.''
Mr. Miller points to the US nuclear power industry as an example of an industry that has formed an association to inspect and enforce its own tough regulations -- independent of federal regulations.
It is not known how well a self-policing policy would work in such a highly competitive industry like airlines. Miller admits he doesn't know the answer.
But Thomas Tripp, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, says airlines are already doing a pretty fair job of self-enforcement. The association represents major air carriers.
``The only way to make yourself a reliable fleet is to go the extra mile,'' says Mr. Tripp. ``In a competitive marketplace, you can't take shortcuts if you expect to stay around.''
Particularly among some financially troubled airlines, falsification of maintenance records is one of those shortcuts that has sometimes been a problem for regulators.
A bill now moving through the House of Representatives would make it a felony to deliberately falsify or withhold maintenance or other airline information from federal inspectors.
``The management of the airlines are taking too many risks,'' says John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute.
``Sure, there's a lot of pressure to cut maintenance. But these guys have been in the airline business for a long time. If they can't it do it the right way, they should get out of the business.''
Last of a series. Previous articles ran June 4 and June 9.