In December, the National Transportation
Safety Board faulted the Federal Aviation Administration for
contributing to the January 2000 crash of an Alaska Airlines jet
that killed 88. The indictment of the FAA was not the first. In
1997, the safety board held the agency partly responsible for a 1996
crash in which 110 died when a ValuJet plane plummeted into the
Now a two-year USA TODAY investigation
concludes that the FAA might have played a role in yet another
airline disaster — a 1998 crash that claimed 229 lives when a
Swissair jumbo jet plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
In all three tragedies, the FAA botched its
paramount mission: to make sure that those inspecting, maintaining
and modifying commercial airliners do their jobs properly.
Such lax monitoring is a growing problem.
Increasingly, the FAA is turning to private companies to handle a
range of tasks in its stead. Yet it has broken repeated pledges to
put better safeguards in place to protect fliers from shoddy work by
The Swissair crash underscores the risks of
further delay. USA TODAY reported last week that the airline had
fitted some of its planes with a sophisticated entertainment system
that let passengers watch movies, shop and gamble. The FAA failed to
oversee the installation, and problems later surfaced with both the
system and Santa Barbara Aerospace, the company that signed off on
the safety of the planes. Before the crash, the FAA repeatedly cited
the firm for poor performance and even briefly suspended it while
the entertainment system was being installed on Swissair planes.
Those concerns should have prompted the FAA
to take a closer look at the project. But it didn't. Swissair Flight
111 carried a system suspected of sparking a deadly electrical fire,
though an official cause has not yet been released. Only after the
crash did the FAA acknowledge risks with the system and Santa
Barbara Aerospace's procedures.
Such inadequate oversight of a private
contractor isn't just a recent problem. In 1993, the General
Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress,
complained that the FAA wasn't "effectively involved" in overseeing
the work performed by outside companies.
In response to the Swissair disaster, the FAA
tightened its monitoring procedures. It rewrote guidelines for
issuing some safety certificates, for example, and required more
intensive oversight of private contractors. Still, the USA TODAY
investigation raised disturbing questions about the effectiveness of
That fits a sorry pattern, too. In the wake
of the ValuJet crash, the FAA embarked on a redesign of its
inspection program to do a better job of catching mistakes before
they cause a fatal accident. But nearly five years after its
introduction, that program remains incomplete. In January, the GAO
said the FAA hasn't "established strong oversight and accountability
The FAA says it now keeps in closer contact
with contractors. The agency also points to the millions of flights
each year that operate safely.
Yet even a rare crash that could have been
averted is one too many. The FAA lacks the resources to inspect
every plane. But it has an obligation to make sure that those who
are handling inspections do a diligent job.