January 16, 2003

Pilots Object to 
New License Policy

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

 improperly 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 products certified.

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 aviation issues.

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.


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