The Federal Aviation Administration is failing to effectively oversee new safety risks posed by sharp cost-cutting in the airline industry and rapid growth of budget carriers, a government report concludes.
U.S. airlines -- many of which continue to struggle financially -- are looking for new ways to cut costs by outsourcing maintenance and reducing the time that planes are parked at gates. At the same time, new low-fare carriers are expanding to dozens of cities. Both trends have created safety concerns that the FAA has not adequately addressed in its inspection program, according to a Transportation Department inspector general report issued yesterday.
"Pilots and flight crews are flying more hours, and aircraft are being utilized for more hours a day," the report says. "While there has not been a fatal accident involving a large passenger air carrier in over three years, there have been precursors to potentially more serious incidents."
U.S. carriers, which ultimately are responsible for safety, said they have not lowered their standards despite losing billions of dollars a year. "We have cut nothing that would compromise safety, nor will we," US Airways spokesman David A. Castelveter said. Other airlines made similar comments.
The FAA defended the work of its inspectors, whose job is to ensure that airlines meet safety standards, and disagreed with many of the inspector general's findings. But it agreed that it has been constrained by budget cuts that will result in 300 fewer inspectors this year. The agency has asked for money to add about 100 inspectors next year to its 3,400-inspector workforce.
"We're extremely mindful of these changes" in the airline industry, said Margaret Gilligan, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for aviation safety. Since 1996, she said, inspectors have relied less on spot inspections and a "kick the tires" approach to focus on oversight of the carriers' safety programs. "We changed our program to better analyze risk," she said.
The report says the FAA did not complete 26 percent of its planned inspections on five major carriers in fiscal 2003. It also criticizes the agency for stepping up oversight of only three carriers in or near bankruptcy protection when at least five network carriers are losing record amounts of money. The report reviewed legacy carriers United, Northwest, US Airways, Delta and American. It also reviewed five low-fare carriers: JetBlue, ATA, AirTran, Frontier and Spirit.
The report found that up to 90 percent of airline maintenance is conducted overnight, yet FAA inspectors spent only 1 to 7 percent of their work time conducting night inspections. The FAA disagreed with that finding, saying its inspectors spend 10 percent of their time at maintenance facilities at night.
The inspector general recommended increased monitoring of maintenance because airlines have increasingly outsourced the work. U.S. airlines closed 42 maintenance facilities from 2001 through 2003 and turned over the work to repair stations in the United States and overseas. The inspector general is separately auditing the FAA's oversight of foreign repair stations, as carriers have sent more work overseas, where labor costs less. A 2003 report by the office found an inadequate number of FAA inspectors monitored work on U.S. planes being overhauled overseas and in the United States.
United Airlines, for example, closed some of its maintenance facilities to save money but said it retains vigorous oversight of its major contractors, both of which are in the United States. "We have our own maintenance folks who are on site who review the work the vendor is doing," said Jeff Green, a United spokesman. "The maintenance work we outsource is less specialized work. We do engine repairs and avionics repair for us and other airlines as well."
The inspector general found instances in which carriers with short turnaround times at gates did not follow proper procedures and pilots made errors in calculating the weight and balance of planes. The reduced turnaround time can result in flight crews working longer as airlines try to schedule planes to make more trips in a day. That can pose safety risks if, for example, there is not enough time for brakes to cool between flights.
"The idea here is we all stay right on our toes," said Kenneth M. Mead, the inspector general. "We don't want anyone taking inference that we're saying the system is unsafe. But having said that, we've definitely found areas where the FAA can improve and minimize risk further."
One low-fare carrier expanded its fleet by 56 percent, tripled its number of destinations and increased operations by 59 percent from 2000 through 2003 while it reduced its mechanic workforce by 14 percent, the report says. But the FAA did not identify the rapid growth as a risk or evaluate the impact of the workforce reduction on maintenance, the report says. The inspector general did not identify the airline.
Gilligan, the FAA safety official, said the agency agreed with many of the inspector general's recommendations for improvement but took issue with some of its criticism. She said she has not found any evidence that outsourced maintenance work has resulted in safety lapses.
Often, she said, repair stations have special expertise. "In many cases, the reason to go to a third-party provider is to enhance the safety program," Gilligan said.
As a result of the report, the FAA agreed to develop procedures to ensure that inspectors constantly monitor industry changes such as worsening financial conditions and said it would collect more information from carriers about off-hour maintenance.