FAA's Oversight of Airline Safety Under Investigation

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Federal Aviation Administration is facing a wide-ranging inspector general investigation into recent maintenance troubles at airlines.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general yesterday announced a series of audits of the agency. The inspector general's office said the investigation was prompted by congressional criticism of the FAA.

The inspector general's office said it is singling out one airline for special attention. The office of inspector general would not name the targeted airline, but pilots and American Airlines officials said inspector general staff have focused on the Texas-based carrier in recent weeks.

The inspector general is delving into the FAA's maintenance oversight system, which in many cases allows airlines to self-report problems, according to a memorandum the office released yesterday. Investigators will also look into air carriers' compliance with FAA safety directives. The FAA, part of the Department of Transportation, oversees civil aviation in the United States.

The FAA said this year that it improperly allowed Southwest Airlines to fly jets in need of key safety checks, a decision that top FAA officials have said was a mistake. A number of whistle-blowers complained of lax FAA safety oversight of Southwest. The inspector general is expected to release a report on Southwest soon.

The inspector general's office is apparently investigating whether some of the problems it found in the Southwest-FAA relationship are occurring at other airlines.

"We will certainly work with the inspector general as they go through their audits," said Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman. She said the FAA's own audits show that airlines had a very high compliance rate following FAA safety directives. "Where we found problems, we took corrective action," she said.

John Hotard, an American Airlines spokesman, said inspector general officials have visited executives at the company's Fort Worth headquarters. Investigators also spent several days at its Tulsa maintenance center. He said the airline was "very upfront" with investigators.

"We've got the most experienced and well-trained workforce in the industry, and we not only maintain our aircraft but we maintain other airlines' aircraft as well," Hotard said.

Thomas Westbrook, vice president of the Allied Pilots Association, said the union also had "lengthy discussions" with inspector general staff.

In mid-April, the FAA ordered American Airlines to ground its entire fleet of MD-80s, which resulted in more than 3,000 flight cancellations that stranded about 350,000 passengers.

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