The bright blue skies of airline deregulation have brought lower fares for millions of travelers. But they have also cut into the margin of airline safety by changing the way maintenance on commercial airplanes is done. Fierce competition dictates that airlines operate from a hub-and-spoke system -- flying planes out from a central airport on very tight schedules. Not only is there more-intensive use of airplanes, but time spent on repairs is money lost, because the plane isn't carrying passengers. There is also pressure to cut maintenance outlays.
As a result, airline safety experts say, the industry has been coasting on a rapidly thinning margin of safety that was built over and above minimum FAA standards in the pre-deregulation era. They say that airlines are often just meeting the minimum now.
And concern about maintenance has pushed to the fore a central question: charges that the Federal Aviation Administration is unable to ensure that minimum maintenance standards are systematically followed.
Charles Miller, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, believes maintenance and FAA maintenance inspections have slipped. The board investigates airline accidents and recommends improvements to the FAA.
``If you ask me if it's safe to fly today, you've also got to ask `compared to what?' '' Mr. Miller says. ``I'd say, sure, it's safe for me to fly. Is it as safe now as it was five years ago? I'd have to give you a different kind of answer.''
Under deregulation, the costs of preventive maintenance are no longer automatically passed on to the consumer. In this economic environment, instead of replacing a part on a jet before it breaks, the decision is more often to replace it when it breaks, says John O'Brien, safety director of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents thousands of commercial airline pilots.
``Falling back to the minimum safety standard has reduced the overall level of safety in the industry,'' Mr. O'Brien says.
One scenario he gives: The airline pulls its planes in between midnight and 2 a.m. but hasn't stocked enough replacement parts to repair all of its planes. Some planes fly the next day and following days with a broken part or instrument, because it's too expensive to keep the plane grounded, he says. Usually these are considered noncritical instruments that have a backup, or parts considered noncritical to flight safety.
Yet, the broken instrument can become important, especially if its backup-instrument twin fails. And ignoring seemingly small repairs can have consequences, too.
In April 1985, an engine fell off an American Airlines Boeing 727 after being hit by a frozen chunk of disinfectant that seeped out of a faulty lavatory toilet. The Dallas Times Herald reported that the toilet had not been fixed, even though leaks had been reported for five months and even though a more effective seal had been developed and was available years earlier.
Charges by the General Accounting Office (GAO, Congress's investigative arm) that the FAA ``cannot say with assurance'' that airlines are complying with safety regulations were recently rebuffed by FAA chief Donald Engen, who appeared before the House Subcommittee on Aviation to report that the agency was tougher than ever.
``We at the FAA are doing the very best we can to operate fairly and effectively,'' said Mr. Engen. ``We're enforcing rules designed to enhance air safety, and we intend to continue.''
Judging from the highly publicized $9.5 million fine slapped on Eastern Airlines for 78,000 violations of maintenance standards, or the $1.5 million fine against American Airlines last year, it would seem that a vigorous FAA has the maintenance issue well in hand.
But is the agency really doing its very best? And if it is, does it have the resources to do the job well?
``If the FAA was doing its job, it never would have developed to the point where you have 78,000 problems at Eastern,'' says the ALPA's O'Brien. ``The situation should be viewed from a much broader perspective. What caused Eastern and the FAA to get into that situation?''
Since deregulation in 1978, the number of scheduled airlines has more than doubled, from 240 to about 500 in 1984, the GAO says. There has been a corresponding increase in the number of commercial US aircraft, from 3,000 to about 4,200, it says.
But as the number of airlines was expanding, the number of inspectors dropped from 2,000 in 1978 to 1,332 in 1983, the GAO reports. FAA spokesman Fred Farrar cites a less dramatic drop in the number of inspectors. He says the agency will be increasing its current staffing level from 1,521 this month to 1,712 by September, with a total increase of 500 inspectors during the next two years.
The GAO says the Aviation Administration ``does not know how its current work force is being used'' and ``is not well prepared to absorb an increase in its inspector work force.''
Yet, the FAA has made efforts toward reform. It has:
Begun to add more inspectors to its staff as well as issue minimum qualification requirements and national guidelines that include minimum inspection standards.
Reaffirmed that inspections are the No. 1 priority for inspectors -- not certification of new airlines.
Started a National Inspection Plan, using special ``SWAT'' teams of inspectors to check specified airlines at length. Yesterday the FAA announced that Pan American Airways had been found to be violating a number of maintenance regulations.
Still, there remains a crushing burden on a relatively small force of inspectors, who, despite directives from Washington to attend to safety first, are torn between the time-consuming task of certifying new carriers and inspecting airline and contract maintenance facilities to see that they are doing the job.
FAA inspectors say they must concentrate on the air carriers and only the busiest of an estimated 4,000 repair stations. That means some repair stations that should get an inspection at least once a year do not get it.
``The challenge is to find ways of doing business better,'' says one FAA inspector. ``Doing more with less. Finding ways to spread ourselves thinner and still get the job done. Because it's become apparent we're not going to get the people. . . . I just know our people out in the field are spread pretty thin.''
Aside from increasing the numbers of airlines and airplanes that must be maintained, and inspections that must be followed up, deregulation has also:
Encouraged new and established airlines to use their aircraft longer, pushing them to the limits of their designed lifetimes. The percentage of older aircraft in the 12- to 14-year-old range with upward of 50,000 hours has increased.
Pushed downward overall maintenance expenditures industrywide. Airlines say the decrease is due to greater maintenance efficiency.
Created new economic conditions that tend to make airlines use aircraft more heavily and defer maintenance. For financially troubled air carriers, there is pressure to skimp on crucial maintenance. Between 1978 and 1984 some 120 airline operators filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
``There's no question in our minds that within the industry there is a conscious effort to reduce costs in all areas as a result of deregulation,'' says O'Brien.
``That has important implications on safety, because while it may not have made things unsafe, and the airlines in most cases may not be below FAA minimums, there is a widespread decline in the level of safety.''
Some, however, contend that the ``margin-of-safety'' issue is overblown and that air carriers should not be penalized in the press for meeting FAA standards, says Thomas Tripp, a spokesman for the Air Transport Institute, which represents commercial air carriers.
``To the extent that any airline flies in violation of safety regulations, they should have the book thrown at them. But from my perspective, I can almost say that whether the FAA inspects or not is irrelevant. As an airline executive, I am personally responsible, morally, legally, to maintain FAA standards.''
And deregulation has created a larger market among new airlines for ``contract maintenance'' -- repair work that is purchased from older established airlines or an FAA-approved repair station. An example of the post-deregulation contract maintenance phenomenon is People Express, which has contracted with United Airlines to repair and maintain virtually all of its aircraft.
Mr. Tripp says there are no finer maintenance facilities and mechanics in the industry that United's. Most contract maintenance is done by large airlines with sophisticated operations, he says, and concern about contract maintenance is out of proportion to reality.
``I can't deny that maintenance is one of the elements that comes under pressure,'' he says. ``But balanced against that is the pressure to have an extra reliable fleet of airplanes. . . . The only way to make them reliable is to go the extra mile. In a competitive marketplace you can't take shortcuts if you expect to stay in business.''
Yet, critics of high contract maintenance levels contend that giving maintenance to other companies widens the gulf of communication between pilots and mechanics concerning an airplane's airworthiness and impairs an airline's ability to ensure quality control in maintenance.
But Mr. Engen says contract maintenance makes no difference as long as the quality of the maintenance is the same. ``We look for compliance. Just so it [maintenance] is done,'' Engen says. ``We don't look for how it's done. Just that it's done.''
``The CEO [chief executive officer] of a company cannot contract out responsibility for maintenance, and I hold that CEO fully responsible,'' he says.
Nevertheless, anytime you fragment an operation like maintenance, you lose the quality control and direct communication between maintenance people, operations people, and pilots, says Mr. Miller, the former safety board chairman.
As the FAA works to be more effective, critics contend that one of the most serious safety concerns is that the FAA has trouble identifying and acting on serious, or potentially serious, safety problems already known to exist.
The GAO says that in the short run, before long-term safety programs are put into place, the FAA ``will continue to be hard pressed to identify safety problems or ensure that problems are quickly corrected once they are identified.''
First of three articles. Next: A profile of problems in maintenance and inspection systems.