FAA off course

Our view: A renewed focus on air safety is needed

April 04, 2008

The Federal Aviation Administration's first responsibility is to ensure the safety of millions who travel on U.S. carriers here and abroad. But the agency's apparent interest in accommodating airlines more than protecting passengers has whistleblowers and congressional investigators pushing for reform.

The evidence is convincing that significant reforms are needed.

The present system, as explained in congressional testimony yesterday, relies too much on voluntary compliance and has permitted airlines to avoid punishment for maintenance lapses. More inspectors would force a renewed focus on safety, but a recent wave of grounded planes demands it.

Stronger FAA oversight is also a critical priority.

The public became aware of FAA shortcomings only after two agency inspectors approached investigators for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last month. They said supervisors had repeatedly rebuffed their reports that Southwest Airlines did not conduct proper inspections for cracks in the fuselages of dozens of Boeing 737 jets.

The FAA has proposed fining Southwest a record $10.2 million for its inspection failures. In the weeks since, airline after airline has suddenly grounded dozens of planes to conduct previously neglected safety checks. FAA officials said this week that four airlines are under investigation for not complying with federal safety directives, but they would not identify the carriers or the nature of the violations.

Two FAA whistleblowers yesterday offered chilling descriptions of supervisors' efforts to intimidate them, and the Transportation Department inspector general chided the agency for promoting "a pattern of excessive leniency at the expense of effective oversight and appropriate enforcement." Reformers also are concerned about the airlines moving maintenance operations overseas, away from effective oversight.

Flying in an airliner is still far safer than riding in a car, but that doesn't mean the government's regulatory agency should be free to do its vital work with a wink and a nod to the industry it oversees.

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