By Kendra Marr and Simone Baribeau
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 24, 2008
The House has passed legislation aimed at preventing the Federal Aviation Administration from having too warm of a relationship with the airline industry.
The bill, which was unanimously approved Tuesday night, follows a critical report on the FAA issued by the Department of Transportation's inspector general earlier this month. Recent inquiries have found that FAA managers last year allowed Southwest Airlines to fly 46 planes that were overdue for safety checks, and the agency ignored the inspectors who had raised concerns. After subsequent audits of other carriers, hundreds of American Airlines and Delta planes were grounded for inspections, resulting in thousands of canceled flights.
"We recognize our goal to maintain and enhance the highest aviation safety record in the world and we look forward to working with Congress as the results of our ongoing reviews are concluded," an FAA statement said.
The legislation, reflecting recommendations from Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III, calls for an independent whistle-blower office within the FAA and for rotating inspectors every five years to prevent them from becoming too close to airlines. It also requires a two-year "cooling off" period before departing FAA inspectors and supervisors can take jobs with airlines they used to oversee.
This is the "first legislative step in reversing the complacency over safety regulation that has set in at the highest levels of the Federal Aviation Administration," said House Transportation Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who sponsored the bill with the committee's ranking Republican, John L. Mica (Fla.).
The bill requires the FAA to conduct a monthly review of its computer-based safety oversight system, which allows airlines to self-report maintenance problems and fixes. It also tells the FAA to tweak its mission statements to clarify that its "customers" aren't airlines but the passengers traveling on the carriers.
The bill was introduced in Oberstar's committee just last week. It's not clear when similar legislation may move through the Senate. The FAA has resisted some of the inspector general's recommendations, particularly the proposed internal whistle-blower unit. But the agency is already working on addressing a post-service cooling off period and oversight of its safety analysis system.
In response to congressional concerns, the Transportation Department inspector general's office is conducting additional audits of FAA oversight of the airline industry.
Even though he was a sponsor of the bill, Mica said he had reservations that a two-year cooling off period was too long, because inspectors could lose their expertise, and that the requirement that supervisors must move between airline offices every five years may discourage the most qualified inspectors from working for the FAA. "What we were trying to do is eliminate some of the relationships that build up and make certain there was some oversight over those relationships," Mica said. "We don't want to lose the best of the best."
Oberstar cautioned that the bill only addresses issues that require immediate action, following the inspector general's recent report and the FAA's rejection of some of Scovel's recommendations.
"This legislation is not a silver bullet that will produce a comprehensive solution to problems that have been developing for years," he said.
Oberstar said he expects additional legislation after completion of all investigations now underway by the inspector general, an FAA special committee and Congress.