As Southwest grounds planes, calls rise for FAA overhaul

Critics say that FAA inspectors cut airlines too much slack.

David Duprey/AP/file
In flight: A Southwest Airlines plane flies toward Miami International Airport. The carrier grounded about 40 planes this week.

Calls are increasing for an overhaul of the Federal Aviation Administration, after Southwest Airlines this week grounded about 40 planes because of maintenance concerns.

For years, the FAA has been accused of being "too cozy" with the airlines it is charged with regulating. It even routinely refers to them as "customers," according to aviation watchdogs.

Those critics say that's led to a lax atmosphere where FAA inspectors cut airlines too much slack, which could lead to potentially dangerous safety situations like the one at Southwest.

The airline made the decision to ground the planes as a precaution after examining its maintenance records. It undertook that extensive review after the FAA slapped it with a record $10.2 million fine for continuing to fly almost 50 planes in 2006 and 2007 that hadn't been properly inspected. That was reportedly done with the knowledge of an FAA inspector assigned to Southwest.

The FAA acknowledges that it was a mistake. But the administration and its supporters say the Southwest situation was an aberration in a regulatory regime that has led to one of the safest aviation systems in the world.

Still, this week Robert Sturgell, acting FAA administrator, met with all his safety managers to reinforce the importance of vigilance.

Yet congressional investigators aren't convinced and are continuing to examine the FAA and the way it oversees airlines. It's called on any airline or FAA employee with knowledge of lax oversight practices to contact them.

"We suspect there may be other airlines in a similar situation to Southwest, and our investigation is continuing," says Jim Berard, director of communications for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The FAA has long been dogged by charges that it's too close to the airlines it regulates. Part of the problem lies in its history. When it was first created by Congress in 1958, the FAA was charged with both regulating the airlines and fostering the growth of the industry. After the crash of a ValuJet plane in 1996, in which questions were raised about the FAA's oversight of the airline, Congress took away the FAA's role of fostering the industry, hoping that would bolster its regulatory efforts.

But critics contend a cozy relationship remains between FAA and the airlines. After being fined, Southwest did an extensive review of its records and decided to ground about 40 planes this week. The House Transportation Committee released a statement that said if the FAA had been doing its job properly, it would have conducted its own review and found the problems before Southwest did.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel managers, also serves on an FAA safety advisory board. He says that FAA employees routinely refer to the airlines as their "customers."

"It's not exactly analogous, but it's like [Rudolph] Giuliani calling the Gotti family his 'customers' [when he was prosecuting them]," Mr. Mitchell says.

He and other aviation analysts are also concerned that the FAA allows some aviation maintenance to be done at foreign facilities where there are no full-time FAA certified mechanics. The Transportation Committee is holding hearings on that issue, along with the problems associated with the Southwest maintenance problems, on April 3.

"The FAA is at the intersection of these two problems, and it's just not up to the task for some reason," Mitchell says.

The FAA and its supporters deny that. The FAA acknowledges that its regulatory regime is based on both enforcement and cooperation with the airlines. But it insists that it's the best approach and that it "works."

"Other countries look to us when they want to build or improve their own safety programs," says Less Dorr, an FAA spokesman.

The FAA's safety system allows the administration to share information with the airlines to detect potential problems. It also allows airlines to report problems without fear of reprisal (unless an airline intentionally tried to skirt the guidelines), says Mr. Dorr. In the recent Southwest case, there was a "twofold breakdown of the system," Dorr says. Southwest didn't inspect the planes, he notes, and an FAA inspector looked the other way. But the situation has been remedied, he says.

"There are two people who are no longer in the positions they were at the time this went down," he says. "We're always trying to find ways to do our job better."

When inspectors are assigned to a specific airline, there can be a trade-off, aviation analysts say.

"On the plus side, the inspector knows the airline and its practices more thoroughly, and so they're in a better position to understand what the airlines are doing," says Clint Oster, an aviation analyst at Indiana University at Bloomington. "The negative concern is that maybe the inspector gets to identify too much with the airline."

Some aviation analysts also believe that Congress should make rules requiring a "cooling off period" so that FAA inspectors are not able to leave their regulatory posts one day and start working for an airline the next.

"There's always the chance when you've got this situation that the regulator can get captured by the company they're supposed to be regulating," says Richard Golaszewski, an aviation consultant with GRA Inc., transportation consultants in Jenkintown, Pa. "So there's some revolving-door issues that need to be addressed.

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