4 Airlines Probed After Safety Audit, FAA Officials Say

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

Four airlines are under investigation for not complying with federal safety directives, according to officials who yesterday released the results of an audit of maintenance at dozens of U.S. carriers.

The audit was prompted by revelations last month of maintenance problems at Southwest Airlines and lax federal oversight of that carrier. Since those disclosures, the industry's maintenance practices have come under close scrutiny, forcing Southwest, Delta and American airlines to ground scores of jets and cancel hundreds of flights to conduct safety inspections and fix defects.

United Airlines yesterday parked its fleet of 52 Boeing 777 wide-body jets to conduct tests of a fire-extinguishing system in the cargo holds of those planes. The action resulted in 41 flight cancellations worldwide, airline representatives said.

A United spokeswoman said a routine review of maintenance records revealed that tests of the fire suppression system had not been conducted on schedule, requiring the groundings. One of United's 777s is carrying reporters covering President Bush in Eastern Europe.

The audit report released yesterday showed that most carriers were following safety rules.

The audit looked at 10 safety directives affecting each type of airplane operated by U.S. carriers. Robert A. Sturgell, the acting head of the FAA, said inspectors found that airlines were complying with 99 percent of the directives.

"The fact we are experiencing the safest period in aviation history is no accident or miracle," Sturgell said. "It is the result of an entire industry making safety their driving focus."

Sturgell and his top assistants would not identify the four carriers that were not complying with safety directives and provided few details about the problems found during the audit.

One airline had not submitted a plan to comply with two directives requiring action by 2028, FAA officials said.

Two others had not completed inspections of wire bundles in the wheel wells of jets. A fourth did not complete repetitive inspections of another type, the FAA said.

Today, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on problems uncovered at Southwest, other carriers and the FAA. FAA inspectors, industry executives and outside investigators are scheduled to testify.

Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) has said his investigators have uncovered a culture at the FAA that is too cozy with the airlines.

Oberstar's investigators and others with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel have alleged that a top FAA inspector became too close to employees at Southwest and gave the airline special treatment in March 2007 by improperly allowing the carrier to keep flying jets that needed safety checks for cracks. Other inspectors, who said their supervisors did not do enough to enforce safety regulations, reported the problems to congressional investigators.

It took the FAA a year to levy a $10.2 million fine against Southwest, which the agency announced last month. Lawmakers, inspectors and outside safety experts said the delay indicated problems with FAA enforcement.

FAA officials announced measures that they said would make it easier for inspectors to report problems to top FAA officials and potentially restrict post-FAA employment for inspectors. The new rules would also hold top airline executives -- not lower-level employees -- accountable for submitting reports of improper compliance with safety directives.

The union that represents the FAA's 3,800 inspectors said yesterday that the FAA audit was flawed because the agency's top officials told inspectors to rely on airline paperwork and not to physically inspect planes unless they were already undergoing maintenance. Union officials said the FAA relies too heavily on airlines to report problems.

When inspectors did check planes undergoing maintenance as part of their audit, they found wiring problems in the wheel wells of MD-80 jets, said Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists Union. That discovery led to the groundings of MD-80s at American and Delta, according to officials.

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