The Reagan axiom of "trust but verify" (about missile deals with the Soviet Union) could just as well apply to US airlines. To ensure safe flying, regulators trust the industry to see its own interest in maintaining aircraft. Then government's job is to verify. Simple, right? Yes, but in practice the balance remains difficult.
The flying public was whipsawed last week by a sudden lack of balance in that government-industry duet when the country's largest domestic carrier, American Airlines, was forced to cancel 3,300 flights on its MD-80 jetliners, leaving nearly 300,000 passengers stranded.
That mass grounding, and other airline woes such as a string of bankruptcies and fare hikes caused by high fuel prices, hint at an industry sending out an SOS.
Like other airlines, American got caught in an unexpected audit of safety compliance by the Federal Aviation Administration. It was forced to ground its MD-80 fleet to readjust wires that were too close together under the FAA's newly stiffened zero-tolerance for any infraction, although no immediate safety issue was suggested. The FAA's crackdown came after the agency itself was embarrassed a few weeks ago with news that one of its supervisors had let Southwest Airlines fly 46 airplanes with maintenance issues in 2007.
The leniency with Southwest reveals that the FAA needs to find a happy medium between "by the book" enforcement and working with airlines to help them expose safety abuses and correct them in a spirit of cooperation.
The idea for the FAA to be both partner and regulator was born in the late 1990s, and furthered under the Bush administration. It's been effective in encouraging compliance rather than having airlines hide problems, and contributed to a big drop in accidents.
But now that cooperation is judged too cozy. The president took up the issue in a cabinet meeting Monday and Congress is asking if other mass flight cancellations are on the horizon.
The agency's oversight role may have been compromised by overreliance on airline-provided data about maintenance. Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's safety chief, told a recent Senate hearing that 99 percent of planes meet agency rules. "It's the other 1 percent that keeps me up at night," he said. And critics claim inspectors sometimes tip off airlines about problems in order to help them avoid FAA penalties.
The FAA must remain the final arbiter on the level of risk that can be tolerated in commercial aviation while also working with the industry to come up with new safety hardware and procedures. It's a delicate dance that needs better scrutiny by Congress and more internal FAA review.
Restoring public faith in the FAA and the industry is now needed, just as the agency and airlines must renew trust in one another. One idea from Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, is to set up an FAA industry task force aimed at clarifying safety regulations, designing orderly compliance with safety directives, and creating backup plans for any more mass groundings.
An industry that moves two million people a day can't afford to have doubts about air-travel safety. It's time to buckle up.