Could flight disruptions have been avoided?
The FAA didn't give American Airlines the usual amount of time to fix the glitches.
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The "overreaction" raises questions about the priorities at the FAA, say other analysts. "We do have an extremely safe airline system in this country, but if you look at where we can best use our resources to make it safer, this is probably not it," says Richard Golaszewski, executive vice president of GRA Inc., aviation consultants in Jenkintown, Pa.Skip to next paragraph
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The tens of millions of dollars the grounding cost American and the public would have been better spent improving the air traffic control system, says Mr. Golaszewski, or in making safety monitoring systems more efficient. "There was a relatively large social cost [to these groundings]," he says. "This was hard on the traveling public: it seems like they're being punished because the political pendulum [at the FAA] is swinging the other way."
After the 1996 ValuJet crash, the FAA changed the way it regulated the airlines from a primarily tough enforcement-only approach to a more cooperative one. The idea was that if airlines could self-report problems without fear of incrimination, the FAA would be able to collect safety data and prevent problems before they occur. In general, aviation analysts contend this is a solid, premptive approach that allows safety to be addressed systematically. But many also contend that since the 9/11 terrorist attack, which ushered in unprecedented losses in the aviation industry, the FAA has shifted too far in favor of cooperation. This, they say, has lead to dangerously lax oversight.
At least, until the recent round of inspections that prompted the MD-80 groundings.
What went wrong
The questions the FAA raised about the wiring bundles at American Airlines illustrate the FAA's transition. On Thursday, Arpey noted that back in 2004 American Airlines was the lead carrier to come up with a service bulletin to address the possibility of wires in the wheel chafing, which could, in a worst-case scenario, lead to a fire.
The FAA took that service bulletin and turned it into what is called an "airworthiness directive," which gave all airlines that fly MD-80s 18 months to check and change the way the wiring bundles in the wheel wells were wrapped and secured. Arpey says American's mechanics made the required changes on all of the planes.
But in this most recent round of inspections, which were ordered after the FAA whistle-blowers went to Congress, the FAA contended that American did not fix the problem correctly. American did not disagree. "We found that we weren't in precise compliance with the requirements and we need to be," says Arpey.
American has now hired a consultant to ensure that it will interpret the FAA's airworthiness directives properly in the future. And some aviation analysts do see something good coming from last week's disruptions.
"The disruptions were major, but this was not done in response to a crash," says Clint Oster, an aviation analyst at Indiana University at Bloomington. "This is a case where it was preemptive grounding in response to a maintenance concern and not a crash. So, in some sense, it indicates that we have made some progress."