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As Southwest grounds planes, calls rise for FAA overhaul

Critics say that FAA inspectors cut airlines too much slack.

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Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel managers, also serves on an FAA safety advisory board. He says that FAA employees routinely refer to the airlines as their "customers."

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"It's not exactly analogous, but it's like [Rudolph] Giuliani calling the Gotti family his 'customers' [when he was prosecuting them]," Mr. Mitchell says.

He and other aviation analysts are also concerned that the FAA allows some aviation maintenance to be done at foreign facilities where there are no full-time FAA certified mechanics. The Transportation Committee is holding hearings on that issue, along with the problems associated with the Southwest maintenance problems, on April 3.

"The FAA is at the intersection of these two problems, and it's just not up to the task for some reason," Mitchell says.

The FAA and its supporters deny that. The FAA acknowledges that its regulatory regime is based on both enforcement and cooperation with the airlines. But it insists that it's the best approach and that it "works."

"Other countries look to us when they want to build or improve their own safety programs," says Less Dorr, an FAA spokesman.

The FAA's safety system allows the administration to share information with the airlines to detect potential problems. It also allows airlines to report problems without fear of reprisal (unless an airline intentionally tried to skirt the guidelines), says Mr. Dorr. In the recent Southwest case, there was a "twofold breakdown of the system," Dorr says. Southwest didn't inspect the planes, he notes, and an FAA inspector looked the other way. But the situation has been remedied, he says.

"There are two people who are no longer in the positions they were at the time this went down," he says. "We're always trying to find ways to do our job better."

When inspectors are assigned to a specific airline, there can be a trade-off, aviation analysts say.

"On the plus side, the inspector knows the airline and its practices more thoroughly, and so they're in a better position to understand what the airlines are doing," says Clint Oster, an aviation analyst at Indiana University at Bloomington. "The negative concern is that maybe the inspector gets to identify too much with the airline."

Some aviation analysts also believe that Congress should make rules requiring a "cooling off period" so that FAA inspectors are not able to leave their regulatory posts one day and start working for an airline the next.

"There's always the chance when you've got this situation that the regulator can get captured by the company they're supposed to be regulating," says Richard Golaszewski, an aviation consultant with GRA Inc., transportation consultants in Jenkintown, Pa. "So there's some revolving-door issues that need to be addressed.