The Transportation Department inspector general has recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration begin assessing the safety risk of foreign airlines that form partnerships with U.S. carriers, especially as these spread into less safe areas of the world.
In a report to be released this week, Inspector General Kenneth Mead also said the FAA's parent, the Department of Transportation, has focused on the economic and competitive aspects of these agreements, but does not consider safety to be a major factor in approving them, although Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater has formed a working group to consider the matter.
At issue is "code sharing," under which one airline sells tickets under its own name for flights actually flown by another airline. Passengers fly as if they were on only one airline, but all or a portion of the flight is on a foreign carrier with a foreign crew.
The FAA has long contended that it has no authority under U.S. law or international treaties to make safety determinations of individual foreign carriers. However, the report said the legal situation is different when the United States considers approving a commercial transaction such as a code share. It said federal law requires that safety be a paramount consideration in approving such agreements.
For years, most code shares were with airlines in western Europe, where safety records are nearly identical to those in the United States. But code shares have proved so profitable that they are burgeoning in Asia and South America, where safety records are much worse. And Slater has formed an Africa initiative, partly to encourage code-share arrangements in Africa, the least safe continent.
The report agreed with the FAA's contention that it has limited resources, and said the FAA could basically copy a program being developed by the Defense Department and six major U.S. airlines under which the airlines themselves, or a contractor, will assess partner safety and report back to the Defense Department. The Pentagon spends $1.2 billion a year on travel, and was frustrated it could not assess foreign code shares with the same vigor it assesses U.S. carriers. The report called the program "commendable."
"We believe the answer to this is that U.S. carriers seeking approval for a code share agreement can reasonably be expected to perform most of the work and provide FAA assurances that the foreign carrier that will operate as a U.S. flight is compliant with applicable safety requirements," the report said.
David Traynham, the FAA's assistant administrator for policy, planning and international aviation, acknowledged that the world of code sharing is changing and "we're being presented with business relationships that are square pegs in our round holes." He said the FAA's future policy "is in a state of flux at this point," but that some form of the Defense Department's approach looks possible.
"We view that approach as a very good one," he said. However, he said some of the inspector general's suggestions appear to go beyond the framework of international law.
In the end, he said, the United States must rely on foreign safety authorities that the country trusts. The FAA can do "ramp inspections" on foreign airliners that enter the United States. But the notion that the FAA would enter a foreign country for an inspection "is not something we have done and it is not something for which we have any authority."
The inspector general noted that two airlines with poor safety records, Korean Airlines and China Airlines of Taiwan, had already been dropped by U.S. partners. Although the report did not name the U.S. partners, it has been reported that Delta Airlines canceled its agreement with Korean, which has had 11 crashes in the past nine years with 228 passenger deaths. And American Airlines has dropped China Airlines, which has had nine crashes in the past nine years with 471 deaths.
However, the report noted that Thai Airways, with five crashes this decade and 215 deaths, remained an active code share partner. Thai is part of United Airlines' "Star Alliance," one of several alliances that go beyond code sharing to the sharing of facilities and amenities such as frequent flier programs.
United spokesman Matt Triak said the airline can't comment on a report it hasn't seen, but that United carefully assesses the safety of its partners.
Anthony J. Broderick, former FAA assistant administrator for regulation and certification, expressed disappointment with the report and said it is destined to fail because it suggests imposing U.S. standards on the airlines of sovereign nations rather than working through international organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization.
"This report is an IG effort to develop new policy rather than an audit," said Broderick, who in 1992 set up the widely praised International Aviation Safety Assessment program to have the FAA assess whether foreign governments have set up safety oversight agencies that meet international standards. Those countries that do not meet standards are placed into one of two categories, one that forbids their airlines to fly to the United States and one that allows limited flights. But individual airlines are not assessed directly.
Broderick said, however, that the Transportation Department has refused to use the results of the FAA's assessments in deciding on code share arrangements. He said this is another case of the FAA getting the blame for policies set by the DOT and the White House, who were more concerned with international relations and commercial arrangements.
"FAA tried for six or seven years to change DOT policies," Broderick said. "But they never wanted to hear bad news."