A Flying Shame

Sunday, April 13, 2008

AIR TRAVEL has gotten so bad these days that going to the airport requires either an exercise in sadomasochism or an abiding faith that everything will be okay. That faith seems to be shattered daily. The latest victims are the thousands of passengers left in the lurch by American Airlines last week because the carrier failed to comply with a safety directive from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The agency ordered the airline in September 2006 to inspect wire bundles in the wheel wells of its fleet of 300 Boeing MD-80 aircraft. There had been reports of frayed wires, which led to concerns about the potential for loss of power, fire or even an explosion. The airline had 18 months to ensure the wires were sheathed in plastic and clamped in place; the clamps have to be one inch apart. But when FAA inspectors took a look last month, they found that the wire casings were not clamped properly. All of American's MD-80 planes were grounded on Tuesday, resulting in more than 3,000 flight cancellations and more than 250,000 stranded passengers by Friday. The airline, which said it would resume a full schedule today, tried to ease the pain of the past week's inconveniences by footing the bill for lodging and meals and even making reservations on other air carriers. That's the least it could do.

The FAA swears that the action taken against American is standard operating procedure. But its aggressive posture coincides with table thumping in Congress about lax safety standards after the revelation last month that an FAA inspector let Southwest Airlines fly its Boeing 737 jets despite reports of a crack in a fuselage. At hearings before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on April 3, the Transportation Department's inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III, bemoaned the "overly collaborative relationship" between the FAA and Southwest. According to an FAA safety inspector, this was the result of the agency treating the airlines like "customers." Meanwhile, the real customers -- the ones crammed onto crowded and late planes who are nickel-and-dimed for everything from checking an extra bag to securing an onboard meal -- are treated with disdain.

The coziness between the FAA and air carriers was bound to happen. The agency relies on a voluntary reporting system for safety concerns. We understand the rationale: Much can be learned when workers can report legitimate concerns without fear of retribution. Issues of compliance are more easily resolved when the lines of communication are open. But as the Southwest incident shows, a line was crossed.

The FAA is supposed to regulate the airlines, not coddle them. Yes, flying is one of the safest forms of transportation. There hasn't been a major U.S. airline crash since November 2001. Thank goodness. But after the year that passengers have had, they shouldn't now have to worry that the plane they're sitting on might be a disaster waiting to happen.

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