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.

noah berger/ap
A new direction: FAA reforms will allow frontline inspectors to voice safety concerns to 'a higher level.'

The recent revelations that Southwest was flying some planes with cracks in their hulls with the knowledge of a Federal Aviation Administration supervisor may have people thinking twice about boarding a plane these days.

A survey of regular business travelers done in the wake of the revelations, in fact, found that 80 percent were "very concerned" about the maintenance lapses, according to the Business Travel Coalition. That made 40 percent think twice about flying.

But even the FAA's harshest critics say that overall, America's skies are safe to fly. As the FAA repeatedly notes, there hasn't been a major commercial accident in the United States since 2001.

Still, the recent claims by FAA whistle-blowers that the agency has become too "cozy" with the airlines it regulates – in some cases ignoring serious safety lapses - may comprise that stellar safety record. But aviation experts now hope the problems raised by the whistleblowers can be addressed before planes start falling out of the sky..

"As good as the safety record is, there's going to have be real oversight and a whole lot more diligent effort on the part of the FAA and the airlines to ensure that, as the system doubles in size over the next 10 years, the actual occurrence of accidents doesn't also double," says aviation analyst Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, N.Y.

In congressional hearings April 3, former and current FAA employees assigned to the Southwest Airlines maintenance operations described what they called a dysfunctional safety culture where problems identified by frontline inspectors were dismissed by FAA superiors. One supervisor in particular had close ties to people within the airline who used to work at the FAA. When the frontline inspectors complained, they were reassigned and even had their jobs threatened, they said. It wasn't until those frontline inspectors went to Congress as whistleblowers, they testified, that the problems were addressed.

The FAA, which was aware of the congressional investigation and the expected testimony, announced on Wednesday a series of reforms, along with a survey of hundreds of maintenance records across the system. The survey found the airlines complied with 99 percent of FAA safety requirements. The reforms are designed in part to allow frontline inspectors to raise concerns "quickly to a higher level" and to "toughen ethical standards" to prevent conflicts of interest like those that apparently led to what the FAA acknowledges was a safety-regimen breakdown at Southwest.

Still, the FAA insists the Southwest situation was an aberration.

"We're not taking a system that's broken and fixing it; we're taking a system that got us to the safest aviation period in history and making it better," says Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman.

Some aviation analysts are not convinced. They say the FAA has more serious problems that it's failing to acknowledge.

"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."

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.

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