Airlines, FAA Under Fire on the Hill

Rep. James L. Oberstar, who heads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says,
Rep. James L. Oberstar, who heads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says, "We need a change of attitude at the highest levels of the FAA." (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Crossed wiring led two United Airlines jets to skid off runways.

Federal inspectors blew the whistle on Southwest Airlines for flying planes after learning that critical safety checks had not been conducted on schedule.

A 20-square-foot piece of wing broke off a US Airways jet over Maryland.

Two other carriers discovered problems with the way they were supposed to bundle wires inside jets, leading them to ground scores of planes and cancel hundreds of flights.

Those recent disclosures have raised concern in Congress and among safety experts about airlines' maintenance practices. They said they were also worried about regulatory oversight of an industry that has been outsourcing increasing amounts of its repair work, which makes it more difficult for inspectors at the Federal Aviation Administration to keep tabs on carriers.

Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters yesterday that the recent flurry of maintenance problems is partially a result of "a cozy relationship between the FAA and airlines and a lack of an enforcement mind-set" by regulators.

"We need a change of attitude at the highest levels of the FAA," said Oberstar, who is to hold a hearing tomorrow on the issue.

FAA officials denied that they are too friendly with air carriers and said the industry has done a good job of complying with often complex directives requiring them to fix items as varied as wiring and windshields.

A recent sampling of airline records and inspections of hundreds of planes has found a "very, very high compliance rate" with safety directives, said Laura J. Brown, an FAA spokeswoman. The FAA is expected to release the results of that study today.

The controversy over airline maintenance comes during the industry's safest stretch in history -- there has been only one major fatal U.S. airline crash since 2001. Even the agency's toughest critics in Congress, including Oberstar, have said air travelers should not be nervous about stepping onto a jetliner.

Still, lawmakers and safety experts said they worry that they are witnessing the same types of problems that dogged the industry a decade ago. That is when the FAA and carriers came under fire for lax maintenance practices that led to crashes.

Many of today's reporting and monitoring systems -- which rely heavily on airlines reporting problems to regulators -- were developed to fix such lapses.

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