Safety Oversight of Airlines Deemed Inadequate - DOT/IG Report
this report on FAA oversight of financially troubled and/or low cost
carriers: operators are on their own ensuring safety, because the feds
haven’t got enough people or effective systems in place to do the job.
Especially worrisome to the DOT/IG was the increasing trend
toward outsourced airline maintenance, which has not prompted a
commensurate shift in FAA oversight. The NTSB has expressed its similar
concerns about FAA oversight of outsourced maintenance.
the FAA has made progress toward a more risk-based approach to safety
oversight, FAA inspectors were not able to effectively use the oversight
systems to monitor the rapidly occurring changes” in the airline
industry, said David Dobbs, assistant inspector general for aviation and
special program audits.
reacted angrily to the report, an official pointing out that there
hasn’t been a fatal accident at a major carrier in the past three and a
half years. That would be the crash of an Air Midwest 1900D twin
turboprop on Jan. 8, 2003, from inadequate operator oversight of
outsourced maintenance and an inadequate weight and balance program.
recognize that the United States has the safest aviation system in the
world and Flight Operational Quality Assurance [programs are available]
to improve the safety of flight operations,” the DOT/IG report said. The
DOT/IG also noted that “while the FAA did not agree with all of our
report conclusions, it generally agreed to implement our
DOT/IG did not point out that Flight Operational Quality Assurance
programs or Safety Management Systems (SMS) are not required by the FAA.
Rather, these programs are voluntarily implemented at a number of
carriers, but not all.
40-page DOT/IG report speaks to the FAA’s problem in great detail; These
are some of its concerns:
3 DOT/IG report, No. AV-2005-062, “Safety Oversight of an Air Carrier
Industry in Transition,”) at:
has about 3,400 aviation inspectors on hand, but is losing about 300
of them in Fiscal 2006 and is budgeting to replace only 97 of them.
(Not addressed in the DOT/IG report was the adequacy of the travel
budget to support inspector visits.) The staffing shortage was
reiterated by the Professional Airways System Specialists (PASS),
the union of FAA safety inspectors. “The report points out what PASS
has been raising with the FAA for years,” said Linda Goodrich, the
PASS regional vice president representing FAA inspectors. “There are
simply not enough inspectors to oversee the industry properly. We
cannot continue to be expected to do more with less,” she said.
The FAA’s Air
Transportation Oversight System (ATOS) has been implemented at just
15 air carriers, and the Surveillance and Evaluation Program (SEP)
suffices at the other 112 carriers for which the FAA provides
oversight. ATOS was designed to look at processes, thereby helping
carriers to audit themselves. However, the ATOS program shortcomings
were not addressed. For example, ATOS would not have identified the
jackscrew lubrication deficiencies at Alaska Airlines that led to
the Jan. 2000 crash of an MD-83. In fact, Alaska was not part of the
The FAA has not
established target dates beyond fiscal 2005 for transitioning the
remaining air carriers to ATOS.
One air carrier
increased its fleet size by 56 percent while reducing the number of
mechanics 14 percent. The FAA did not identify the increase in
flights and reduction in mechanics as risks.
expressed reluctance to identify risks because to do so would result
in more inspections than could be completed in a year.
planning only seven inspections were responsible for overseeing a
carrier that outsourced over 50 percent of its maintenance.
shortening their turnaround times at the gate, and the FAA has not
shifted inspectors to assure that this trend is safe, according to
the DOT/IG report. It should be noted that Southwest Airlines has
one of the shortest turnaround times in the business and, at the
same time, one of the safest records in the industry.
The FAA has not
focused on nighttime inspections, even though as much as 90 percent
of maintenance is performed at night. Inspectors spend from a low of
1 percent to a high of 7 percent conducting nighttime inspections,
according to the DOT/IG. The FAA claims the figure is more like 10
percent. During the Air Midwest crash hearings by the NTSB, the
carrier was asked why, if most of the contract maintenance was being
performed at night, the carrier’s representative wasn’t working at
night, too. The same question applies to FAA inspectors.