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.
She also said top U.S. transportation officials will soon begin meeting with the airlines to ensure they have plans to accommodate passengers in the event of a mass grounding.
Several of yesterday's announced actions were recommended by Calvin L. Scovel III, the Transportation Department's inspector general. Scovel has criticized the FAA for lax oversight of Southwest, testifying before Congress that the lapses "exposed significant weaknesses in FAA's oversight of air carriers."
Scovel recommended that the FAA ensure that higher level supervisors review airline self-disclosures and that the agency do a better job of tracking and alerting top officials to overdue inspections.
Lawmakers said yesterday that Peters appeared to be taking the right steps toward reestablishing faith in the FAA.
"Today's action by Secretary Peters is long overdue recognition that the safety oversight between the FAA and the airlines isn't working as well as it should," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, said in a statement. "More must be done to get the FAA's house in order, and restore public confidence in our national aviation system."
Fort Worth-based American issued a statement saying its executives "are happy to cooperate with any request" from the government. The carrier said it hoped officials would also solicit information from other carriers that grounded jets.
Executives at American and other carriers have said in recent days that the FAA overreacted in forcing American to ground planes for issues they believed were not safety related.
FAA inspectors first identified potential problems with the wire bundles during a round of inspections in late March. They were concerned that the bundles were not mounted in a way that complied with a safety mandate designed to prevent wires from sparking and causing fires.
American grounded the fleet and conducted a quick round of inspections and repairs, the carrier has said.
Mechanics found no frayed wires but did find chafing on the insulation surrounding the wires on at least two jets, according to the carriers' executives and internal airline maintenance records obtained by The Washington Post.
The records show American made repairs to at least 140 planes after finding problems with the size of sleeves around the wires and improper ties holding the bundles together, among others. The carrier conducted "complete rework" of the bundles on at least 20 of the jets, the records show.
But that work was apparently not thorough enough for FAA inspectors, who rechecked American's planes on April 7. The inspectors found problems with 15 of 19 jets, the FAA has said.
The carrier was then forced to ground the fleet to comply with the mandates, which executives described as being "technical" in nature.
They said inspectors were concerned that lace ties were not properly spaced, that some clamps were facing in the wrong direction and that mechanics had used bolts instead of rivets on some of the jets.
The airline lost "tens of millions" of dollars during the groundings, its executives have said.
The carrier's chief executive, Gerard Arpey, has apologized for the groundings.
Arpey and others at the carrier have argued, however, that American should have been allowed to keep flying the planes until the problems were fixed because there was never a safety risk. They have said they considered the issue a matter of not complying with paperwork.
"I have never seen them this overly aggressive," Carmine J. Romano, a senior vice president for maintenance and engineering at American, said of the FAA in a recent interview. "This is madness."
Although Peters said she has reached no conclusions about what triggered the groundings, she added that the FAA's response was proper. "I absolutely do not think there was an overreaction," she said.