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FAA adjusts safety regime, but some say not enough

The agency cites new 'improvements' to safety record, airline oversight. Critics say its industry ties remain too tight.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 2008

A new direction: FAA reforms will allow frontline inspectors to voice safety concerns to 'a higher level.'

noah berger/ap


New York

The recent revelations that Southwest was flying some planes with cracks in their hulls with the knowledge of a Federal Aviation Administration supervisor may have people thinking twice about boarding a plane these days.

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A survey of regular business travelers done in the wake of the revelations, in fact, found that 80 percent were "very concerned" about the maintenance lapses, according to the Business Travel Coalition. That made 40 percent think twice about flying.

But even the FAA's harshest critics say that overall, America's skies are safe to fly. As the FAA repeatedly notes, there hasn't been a major commercial accident in the United States since 2001.

Still, the recent claims by FAA whistle-blowers that the agency has become too "cozy" with the airlines it regulates – in some cases ignoring serious safety lapses - may comprise that stellar safety record. But aviation experts now hope the problems raised by the whistleblowers can be addressed before planes start falling out of the sky..

"As good as the safety record is, there's going to have be real oversight and a whole lot more diligent effort on the part of the FAA and the airlines to ensure that, as the system doubles in size over the next 10 years, the actual occurrence of accidents doesn't also double," says aviation analyst Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, N.Y.

In congressional hearings April 3, former and current FAA employees assigned to the Southwest Airlines maintenance operations described what they called a dysfunctional safety culture where problems identified by frontline inspectors were dismissed by FAA superiors. One supervisor in particular had close ties to people within the airline who used to work at the FAA. When the frontline inspectors complained, they were reassigned and even had their jobs threatened, they said. It wasn't until those frontline inspectors went to Congress as whistleblowers, they testified, that the problems were addressed.

The FAA, which was aware of the congressional investigation and the expected testimony, announced on Wednesday a series of reforms, along with a survey of hundreds of maintenance records across the system. The survey found the airlines complied with 99 percent of FAA safety requirements. The reforms are designed in part to allow frontline inspectors to raise concerns "quickly to a higher level" and to "toughen ethical standards" to prevent conflicts of interest like those that apparently led to what the FAA acknowledges was a safety-regimen breakdown at Southwest.

Still, the FAA insists the Southwest situation was an aberration.

"We're not taking a system that's broken and fixing it; we're taking a system that got us to the safest aviation period in history and making it better," says Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman.

Some aviation analysts are not convinced. They say the FAA has more serious problems that it's failing to acknowledge.