The House Committee on Government Operations recommended last night that Congress repeal the Federal Aviation Administration's responsibility for promoting aviation and order it to concentrate exclusively on safety.
That recommendation has been made by safety experts for years, but never by an official congressional body. Critics have claimed that Congress gave the FAA an irreconcilable conflict of interest in 1958 when the new agency was told to regulate safety and to consider "the promotion, encouragement and development of civil aeronautics."
The result of the dual role, the committee said in a lengthy report, is that "the FAA has become dangeriously oriented to the needs of industry management at the expense of the traveling public. FAA's inspectors often seem to act as management consultants rather than informed regulators . . ."
Further, the report said, there are serious weaknesses in the way the FAA certifies new planes as "airworthy," oversees the manufacture of those planes and inspects their maintenance after they have been delivered.
The report was the result of months of hearings and investigations into FAA activities that followed the American Airlines DC10 crash in Chicago last May 25. The crash, in which 273 people were killed, was the worst in U.S. history. Rep. John L. Burton (D-Calif.), chairman of Government Operations' transportation subcommittee, is a long-time critic of FAA practices and has had some classic verbal battles with Langhorne M. Bond, the FAA administrator.
In addition to the one big recommendation urging changes in the basic FAA legislation, the report proposes 24 steps the FAA should take to tighten its process in three areas: certification, surveillance of manufacturing, and surveillance of maintenance.
Those three issues were central to the investigation of the DC 10 crash, because it was found that the FAA had certified the DC10 without knowing whether the part that failed in the Chicago crash had been properly tested. Quality control problems during the manufacture of other DC10s by McDonnell Douglas were discovered in subsequent inspections of those planes, and maintenance by American Airlines was blamed for inducing the damage that resulted in the crash.
The questions are particularly pertinent at this time because a new generation of big passenger airplanes is about to be certified by the FAA. Boeing is busy selling 757s and 767s and McDonnell Douglas is in flight tests with its DC9 Super 80.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the report was a letter written in January 1979 -- before the DC10 crash -- by a senior FAA engineer then assigned to the Los Angeles field office.
M. Craig Beard -- who was later to play a key role on behalf of the FAA in sorting through the DC10 wreckage and finding the answers -- wrote his supervisors:
"In my opinion, the most serious problem to be faced in the immediate future of the FAA's aircraft certification function is the rapidly diminishing technical competency of the organization as a whole. . . . Our professional development programs are far below the maintenance level. A continued slide can only result in an aircraft certification organization that is technically incompetent to accomplish its assigned mission. . . ."