National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Burnett said yesterday that the Federal Aviation Administration's airline safety inspection program is inefficient and undermanned.
Burnett's comments came in an interview as the safety board was considering its report on the crash of an Air Illinois flight in October 1983 that killed 10 people. That crash is blamed largely on poor judgment in the cockpit, but safety board investigators subsequently discovered that Air Illinois maintenance records were falsified and that FAA oversight was less than rigorous.
Related questions about FAA oversight have arisen with the recent grounding of two other commuter airlines -- Provincetown-Boston (PBA) and American Central -- and with the crash last Thursday in Jacksonville of a PBA flight just 11 days after PBA was permitted to resume service. Thirteen people were killed in the PBA crash. American Central is still grounded.
Meanwhile, most commuter airlines concluded their inspections of the Brazilian-made Embraer Bandeirante plane like the one that crashed in Jacksonville and told the FAA they found no serious problems. The FAA had ordered thorough inspections of the tail areas after investigators found that the tail fell off in the Jacksonville crash.
Most of the 130 Bandeirantes in the United States have been or will be returned to service, the airlines said. Loose rivets or minor cracks have been found in some planes, but they are not considered serious, sources said. Investigators said they do not yet understand why the tail fell off the PBA plane.
In its Air Illinois inspections, Burnett said, the FAA "found that the hangar floor needed to be swept and that the liquor license wasn't in the cockpit, but serious safety deficiencies were not found."
"After the safety board began to find problems" at Air Illinois, Burnett said, "the FAA formed a special inspection team, and they didn't take any action. Then the safety board held hearings and the FAA announced a 100 percent surveillance of the airline's operations. A few days later Air Illinois surrendered its certificate" to fly.
Safety board Vice Chairman Patricia Goldman noted that the FAA's grounding of PBA came after a tip from a former PBA employe, not from FAA surveillance. She wondered, she said, if FAA's surveillance does not need to be more discerning.
Burnett, a Reagan appointee, said he believes the FAA is doing a better job than it was in 1983, "but that still does not answer the question of whether, day in and day out, their surveillance techniques are adequate." He said that he thinks the FAA is understaffed, but that "it would be a mistake to add more staff unless they improve the efficiency of what they have."