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How airlines can regain safety margin

(Page 2 of 2)

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:

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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Improvement of internal instruction manuals and maintenance records, many of which are consistently out of date.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.