By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY
The General Accounting Office is launching an investigation
into the federal government's use of thousands of
private companies to inspect and certify airlines'
planes and aircraft alterations.
GAO officials say the new probe was triggered by
a Feb. 17 USA TODAY article and a letter Friday
from Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. He said that the
Federal Aviation Administration's use of private
companies has been criticized and that the newspaper
story suggested "the aviation industry was
supervising itself without adequate controls and
oversight by FAA." (Related
story: Doomed plane's gaming system exposes
holes in FAA oversight)
The article documented how a faulty interactive
entertainment system on a Swissair jet that crashed
in September 1998 was incorrectly installed and
Investigators examine SR-111 wreckage
certified by private companies. All 229 people aboard
Flight 111, which left New York and plunged into
the Atlantic Ocean near Nova Scotia, were killed.
Canada's Transportation Safety Board will announce
the findings of its investigation on March 27. The
board, which has been assisted by the FAA, found
early on that wires in the system and other wires
short-circuited and could have led to a fire.
The system was made by a small Las Vegas company,
Interactive Flight Technologies.
An FAA-approved contractor, Santa Barbara Aerospace,
was hired to certify that the system met FAA safety
standards and oversee its installation on Swissair
jets. SBA's certification violated FAA procedures,
according to the FAA's post-crash review.
The FAA did not oversee SBA's work on the project
aggressively, even though it had criticized the
company's work in the past, USA TODAY reported,
based on a review of FAA documents.
After the Swissair crash, the FAA found problems
with the design, installation and certification
of IFT's systems and banned them. SBA lost operating
authority and went bankrupt.
Unknown to much of the traveling public, thousands
of individuals and companies like SBA have been
increasingly used in the past few decades to do
the FAA's inspection and certification work. The
FAA relies on designees because it doesn't have
enough staff or expertise to monitor the large number
of planes flying today. Critics charge that designees
may not be impartial certifiers, because they are
hired and paid by the companies that want their
The GAO has not yet set a timetable for completing
its investigation of the designee program, says
Gerald Dillingham, the agency's director of civil
The program and other issues raised by USA TODAY's
article also concern the Department of Transportation's
Office of Inspector General. Deputy IG Todd Zinser
says the office is "evaluating the information
to determine whether further investigation is warranted."
FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto says the agency is "ready
to assist in any review" of its programs. He
wouldn't comment further.