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.
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"Are they good steps and measures as stand-alone items? Yes," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa., which represents corporate travel managers. "But to put these out the day before the hearing, I just can't believe there's any sense of credibility to them. I don't trust the motivations."Skip to next paragraph
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Other aviation analysts are just as skeptical. They point to the FAA's troubled history as it has struggled to improve aviation safety over the years. A key part of the problem has been that, when Congress created the agency in 1958, it was charged with both promoting and regulating the aviation industry. By the mid-1990s, that led to an environment in which commercial concerns sometimes trumped safety concerns. That's the scenario that emerged during the National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the 1996 ValuJet crash in Florida.
Frontline inspectors had recommended the airline be shut down for safety lapses, but they were overruled by superiors interested in keeping an airline aloft. That led Congress to eliminate the FAA's role as a promoter of the industry and to charge it solely with ensuring safety. Critics say that despite those changes, the legacy of that earlier dual role persists in the FAA culture.
They point to the Southwest situation.
"After ValuJet, Congress did nothing about the fact that inspectors' recommendations to shut down the airline were buried – that's the same thing that came out in [last week's] hearing about the Southwest situation. Inspectors' recommendations were ignored," says Michael Boyd, president of The Boyd Group, aviation consultants in Evergreen, Colo.
House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D) of Minnesota has called for a "top-down review" of the FAA. Some analysts hope that when the Senate takes up the FAA reauthorization bill, it will include language that requires more thorough reforms at the agency.
But some aviation analysts worry too many changes could damage what's working within the FAA and airlines' safety regimens. They say there was a lot of hyperbole at last week's hearings.
"There was something wrong there, but this was atypical for Southwest – they have no interest in getting dragged through the press or running an unsafe airline," says Richard Golaszewski, executive vice president of GRA Inc., aviation consultants in Jenkintown, Pa.
As for the aviation system as a whole: "The system works. Is it perfect? No. Is it totally broken? No," says Mr. Golaszewski.