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.
In exchange for disclosing errors or other mistakes, airlines are generally not subjected to fines or other forms of punishment. Some experts and members of Congress worry that the approach may need to be recalibrated.
"The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of partnership with the airlines," said Ken Mead, a former inspector general at the Department of Transportation.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, added: "Well, if you view airlines as your customers, I am not sure that is the appropriate relationship, particularly when it gets into safety."
The recent disclosures of maintenance problems surfaced last month in media reports about Southwest Airlines.
FAA inspectors approached investigators on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, alleging that the airline did not conduct proper inspections for cracks in the fuselages of dozens of Boeing 737 jets. Such inspections were required after a 1988 accident in which the top of an Aloha Airlines 737 tore away due to cracking.
Southwest told regulators in March 2007 that it had not done the appropriate inspections on more than 40 of its 737s but kept flying them for as many as eight days before being able to inspect them for cracks. Mechanics found small cracks in five of the planes, the airline said.
A month later, the airline made a similar admission about late inspections of a critical rudder system. The airline continued to fly the planes for up to nine days after disclosing the problem. A top FAA official in the office that monitors Southwest was a friend of at least one airline employee and improperly gave the carrier permission to fly the planes even after it learned of the missed inspections, according to members of Congress and investigators with the special counsel's office.
The FAA has removed the employee from his job overseeing Southwest.
Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch, whose office investigates complaints by whistle-blowers, said in an interview that he believes "there are significant issues with the FAA commitment to oversight and safety compliance."
"The FAA has a culture of coverup and complacency," Bloch added.
Last month, nearly a year after the initial problems were discovered, the FAA levied a $10.2 million fine against Southwest. The vast majority of the fine was imposed because Southwest had certified that it stopped flying the planes as soon as it learned of the missed inspections, FAA officials said.
Southwest representatives said that the late inspections never endangered the public and that they thought they were following proper procedures after learning of the missed checks.
Southwest's chief executive, Gary Kelly, has apologized for any potential safety lapses.
Southwest last month grounded 38 jets to make up for late inspections for potential cracking on another part of the airplanes. Four of those jets had minor cracks that required repairs, the airline reported.
Southwest's disclosures prompted airlines and the FAA to look for other problems across the industry. Inspectors and mechanics found problems with how wiring bundles were attached in the wheel wells of McDonnell-Douglas jets operated by Delta Air Lines and American Airlines. The airlines grounded scores of planes and canceled hundreds of flights until they could correct the wiring. Airline representatives said the problems did not pose a safety hazard.
On March 22, a 20-square-foot section of composite material separated from the wing of a US Airways Boeing 757 on a flight from Florida to Philadelphia. The airline quickly discovered that improper repairs had been conducted on seven of its 43 757s. That work probably led to the wing breaking over Maryland, the airline said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what led two United Airlines Airbus planes to skid off runways in recent months. On Feb. 22, one of the planes ran more than 100 feet off the end of a runway while landing at the airport in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Investigators blamed crossed wiring on sensors that operate an anti-skidding system. A similar incident occurred Oct. 9 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, investigators said.
United representatives said that they have found no similar problems in their Airbus fleet and are trying to figure out why tests did not uncover the faulty repair work before the planes were put back into service.