14, 2002 -
Air-Safety Regulators Flunk Yet Another Test
WASHINGTON (USA) - In the wake of Sept. 11, the Federal Aviation
Administration (news - web sites) was stripped of its mandate to
oversee airline security thanks to its own incompetence. It wrote
weak regulations and allowed airlines to get away with cheap, bungled
baggage screening. But a new report by the Department of Transportation's
inspector general raises troubling questions about the agency's
ability to handle its key remaining job: ensuring that airlines
On Thursday, FAA officials will appear before the House Transportation
and Infrastructure Committee to answer findings that a highly touted
system for improving airline maintenance and operations, unveiled
in 1998, is still fraught with dangerous problems. Training is inadequate,
inspectors are ineffectively used, and elements of the system were
never put in place, Inspector General Kenneth Mead found.
The program was established to close perilous safety gaps revealed
by a 1996 ValuJet crash, in which 110 died. The FAA had written
lax fire-safety rules and then ignored ValuJet's many problems.
Yet in January 2000, when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plummeted into
the Pacific, the crash revealed that the FAA's new safety regimen
failed to catch obvious signs of maintenance lapses at what was
then the nation's 10th-largest airline.
The new program's concept is sound: replace hit-and-miss safety
checks of the nation's enormous fleet of planes with a new data-collection
system aimed at detecting trends that presage serious problems.
Even so, the new report found several flaws:
* Spotty data analysis. While the
heart of the program is analyzing data and kicking it back to
correct weaknesses, the FAA, nearly four years into the program,
is still developing these basics. That means inspectors cannot
''effectively determine changes air carriers need to make'' or
''target resources to the greatest safety risks.''
* Poor training.
Many inspectors don't understand the checklists they're using
to find safety problems; 71% of those interviewed by investigators
said they haven't been adequately trained to use the new inspection
* Nonsensical assignments. Inspectors
are often headquartered far from the airlines they oversee, undercutting
their ability to get the most out of inspections. One office overseeing
two airlines with major bases in Tampa and Cincinnati has no field
inspectors near those cities. Inspectors overseeing a huge airline
with hubs in Denver and Chicago are housed in three other cities
with little of that airline's traffic.
The FAA says it's addressing the problems quickly. The agency is
about to field-test improvements to its data-analysis program. Other
changes, such as training for inspectors, will be completed soon.
After reviewing the FAA's actions since his inquiry was completed
last November, the inspector general says the agency has made progress.
But Michael D. Fanfalone, president of the union that represents
inspectors, questions the FAA's improvement claims. He says inspectors
still lack critical training, analysts don't have enough solid data
to work with, and inspections involve ''more activity, less substance.''
Six years after the Valujet crash revealed a virtual collapse of
safety oversight, the FAA should be far beyond training inspectors
and field-testing a new system.
The inspector general's critique is a sobering reminder that simplifying
the FAA's mission after Sept. 11 left the agency still facing complicated