March 12 - April 12 About 4,000 flights canceled, 400,000 passengers stranded*

Groundings Prompt FAA Safety Overhaul

(By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)
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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008

The nation's top transportation official yesterday announced steps that she said will improve oversight of airlines' compliance with safety mandates and ensure that last week's mass groundings and flight cancellations do not recur.

The measures included establishing a roving team of officials to conduct comprehensive checks of airline maintenance practices and the creation of a system to better track the status of looming and overdue inspections, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

Regulators are seeking the changes, Peters said, because "no one was well served by what happened last week" when American Airlines grounded hundreds of jets. The carrier parked the planes to reinspect and repair wire bundles in the wheel wells of 300 MD-80 jets, the workhorses of its fleet. Over five days, more than 3,000 flights were scrubbed and 300,000 passengers stranded across the country while mechanics examined the planes.

The debacle was the latest in a string of groundings and flight cancellations by several carriers that followed disclosures last month of safety lapses at the Federal Aviation Administration and Southwest Airlines.

An FAA inspection supervisor improperly gave Southwest permission last year to keep flying more than 40 jets after learning the planes were months overdue for critical safety checks, according to the FAA and other government investigators.

That supervisor has been reassigned, and Southwest was fined $10.2 million for continuing to fly those planes. Embarrassed by the fiasco and congressional criticism, the FAA launched two rounds of audits to ensure air carriers were complying with safety mandates.

FAA officials have already announced measures that they said would take care of the problems raised by its lax oversight of Southwest. Among those steps: forcing high-ranking airline personnel to submit reports to the FAA of safety problems or compliance issues filed voluntarily by airline employees. In the past, lower-level airline workers could make such disclosures.

Transportation officials said yesterday that new rules will also require senior-level FAA officials to receive those reports to ensure that rogue inspectors are not being too lenient on the airlines.

"We want to make very clear there is no place, no place at all, in this agency for anyone who is interested in turning a blind eye to the safety of our skies," Peters said.

The self-reporting initiative -- the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program -- has been hailed by safety experts, lawmakers and regulators as being a critical tool in helping reduce fatal crash rates. In exchange for quickly reporting and fixing errors or safety problems, air carriers are generally not fined or punished by regulators.

Some safety experts and top lawmakers say, however, that the program has helped the FAA and the airlines get too cozy.

Yesterday, Peters also announced the creation of a task force to examine the effectiveness of FAA oversight and its programs. She said American and the FAA would have 14 days to submit reports on what went wrong last week.

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