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Plane maintenance lapses draw congressional hearing

With four major carriers having grounded planes, FAA whistle-blowers will testify Thursday before Congress.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2008

Grounded: Michael Straub waited in the Atlanta airport on March 27 after his Delta flight was canceled. The airline was inspecting wiring bundles on planes.

John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

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NEW YORK

The Federal Aviation Administration is under fire.

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With United Airlines now the fourth major carrier to ground planes over the past month because of maintenance concerns, critics charge that the FAA is "too cozy" with the airlines it regulates. It's a situation, they say, that could eventually affect the safety of the flying public. As a result, critics are calling for a complete review and overhaul of the agency.

On Thursday, a major congressional hearing will feature the testimony of FAA whistle-blowers who allege that with the FAA's knowledge, Southwest Airlines continued to fly for up to 30 months airplanes that missed inspections.

"All eyes are on this now. We have a fundamental problem here," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel managers. "It's time for a giant step back for a top-down strategic review of the FAA."

The FAA denies that it has a "cozy" relationship. On Wednesday, it released a review of hundreds of airline maintenance records and found "an extraordinarily high rate" of airline compliance with its regulations. It says that the problems recently highlighted by whistle-blowers about Southwest Airlines, which prompted the review, were "aberrations."

"We would point out the unparalleled safety record as proof that the risk-based oversight system and voluntary reporting programs we have are producing results," says FAA spokesman Les Dorr. "The safety record we have today is not a result of chance, happenstance, or an accident."

Prior to 1996, the FAA had what was called a "fix and fly" method of aviation safety. When there was an accident or a problem was found, the FAA made sure that it was addressed on all planes. But the 1996 ValuJet crash, in which 110 people were killed in the Florida Everglades, changed that. Investigators cited lax FAA oversight as one cause of the crash. That prompted Congress to overhaul the agency, which until that time had had a dual charge of both regulating and promoting the aviation industry. After 1996, the FAA's sole responsibility was to regulate the airlines. At that time, the FAA also transformed its aviation safety regime, moving from a "fix and fly" system to one where airlines voluntarily reported problems in exchange for not being penalized. The FAA then used that information to predict potential problems and fix them before there could be an accident.

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