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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.

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"When we find problems in the system, we certainly don't hesitate to act, and we've shown that many times in the past," says Mr. Dorr.

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But some aviation experts and federal inspectors say that the pendulum in this cooperative relationship has swung too far, given the Southwest incident and maintenance problems also revealed at American, Delta, and United Airlines, which all resulted in planes being grounded.

At Thursday's hearing by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, two FAA inspectors will allege that the FAA systematically failed to provide proper oversight of Southwest's maintenance operations over a number of years, according to a briefing by committee staff. The briefing also asserts that the problems with inadequate oversight may not be unique to Southwest.

In addition, the briefing also contends that FAA management works to ensure it doesn't "strain" relationships with airlines: "Many [FAA] inspectors allege that there is pressure from management not to identify too many problems with airlines, suggesting that there may be retribution or reassignment as a result."

Aviation experts, and even Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D), who is one of the industry's leading critics, say the aviation system is still safe. But Representative Oberstar says that to ensure this safety record continues, the FAA needs to change the way it's doing business. "We need a change of attitudes at the highest levels," he said on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.

Aviation analysts draw similar conclusions. "It's obviously disconcerting to the traveling public that the FAA may not be doing its job as diligently as it should, at least in the light of some whistle-blowers," says Robert Mann, an aviation consultant with R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, N.Y. "But I think the majority of this is going to be determined to be not substantive maintenance problems but rather paperwork issues."

The good news, says aviation expert Clint Oster at Indiana University in Bloomington, is that this is not happening in "the wake of airplanes falling out of the skies. Professor Oster applauds the recent decisions by American and Delta to ground some planes for further inspections, even if it was done as a result of a whistle-blower drawing attention to perceived problems within the FAA.

"These are precautionary moves," he says. "They're taking a proactive approach to something that's been in the back of industry people's minds for a while. That's a good thing."