The FAA has been under intense pressure from the U.S. Congress of late, and some believe that the reaction to Congressional pressure to tighten up FAA oversight of the aviation industry is a direct cause of the thousands of airline groundings last month. The problems that resulted in the groundings centered on compliance with FAA airworthiness directive (AD) and maintenance requirements, yet it appears that some of these problems were discovered only because of FAA inspectors’ additional scrutiny of the airlines. During a congressional hearing held on April 3, FAA leaders were strongly criticized for a too-cozy relationship with the industry that they oversee, resulting in some Southwest Airlines flights having been conducted outside AD compliance requirements.
In the Southwest Airlines case, problems centered around compliance with an AD calling for inspections for airframe structural cracking. Southwest executive chairman Herb Kelleher explained the source of the problem during testimony at the April 3 House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure oversight and investigations hearing on “Critical Lapses in FAA Safety Oversight of Airlines: Abuses of Regulatory ‘Partnership Programs.’”
The airline’s engineering department generated instructions showing mechanics how to comply with the AD but, according to Kelleher, “missed the fact that there was still part of the airplane that needed to be inspected. We discovered that we should have inspected that tiny part of the airplane. We reported it to the FAA.”
While non-compliance with an AD automatically renders an aircraft unairworthy, an FAA inspector, Kelleher said, “at the PMI [principal maintenance inspector] level said we could continue to fly.” Southwest Airlines, he added, should not have flown those airplanes. While the AD non-compliance is not believed to have compromised the safety of those flights and the Southwest Boeing 737s were not at risk of coming apart in mid-flight, he added, “Is that any excuse for not putting those planes down? No.”
The issues that came before the committee centered on the non-compliance by Southwest Airlines and the FAA’s resulting proposed civil penalty of $10.2 million. But the committee also heard testimony from FAA inspectors who blew the whistle on activities in the FAA southwest region and tried to warn their managers about Southwest Airlines compliance issues.
The inspectors who testified highlighted the fact that allowing Southwest to continue to fly airplanes that were not compliant with the AD was not a normal FAA process. The PMI who allowed Southwest to continue to fly has since been reassigned to non-safety-related duties pending further investigations. The same action was also taken against Thomas Stuckey, FAA manager, flight standards division, Southwest Region, after he testified at the congressional hearing.
More Pressure on the FAA
The FAA’s actions, said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, are “misfeasance, malfeasance bordering on corruption.” He added, “The FAA would have us believe this is an isolated incident. [It] shows a systematic breakdown of the safety oversight role of the FAA.” Oberstar also said that Southwest Airlines had contacted the FAA and asked for the whistle-blowing inspector to be removed from duties overseeing the airline.
Nicholas Sabatini, FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, was deeply contrite during his April 3 testimony and acknowledged, “It’s never permissible for an airline to fly with an AD [not in compliance]. No one in the FAA has that authority. It flies in the face of everything we stand for.”
Referring to the PMI who was reassigned, Sabatini said, “The inspector is the subject of ongoing personnel action and has been removed from safety duties. I consider what happened here is egregious. We will take whatever action the law will allow. I will not tolerate any manager who does not encourage a safety culture.”
Accepting responsibility for FAA mistakes, Sabatini said that part of the fix was a series of steps announced on April 2, including a new hotline for FAA employees to raise safety concerns; rulemaking to strengthen post-employment restrictions for FAA inspectors; a system to clarify AD requirements so they are easier to implement; and accelerating the expansion of the Aviation Safety and Analysis Sharing Program.
The FAA also conducted an audit of 10 airlines to verify AD compliance, and as a result of this audit, American Airlines ran into problems with an AD on its MD-80 fleet. AD 2006-15-15 makes the requirements of Boeing Alert Service Bulletin MD80-29A070 mandatory, and this covers wiring bundle installation in landing-gear wheel wells, intended to prevent arcing at the hydraulic pump or wheel-well fires.
American Airlines had helped Boeing develop the service bulletin, just as Southwest Airlines worked with Boeing to develop the aging-airframe AD that resulted in the proposed $10.2 million civil penalty. FAA inspectors conducting an audit on American Airlines’ compliance with AD 2006-15-15 “raised a number of issues related to our aircraft,” said American Airlines president and CEO Gerald Arpey.
“We created an engineering change order, put it out to our mechanics to go look at the issues the FAA had raised, and we went out and did that, put the airplanes back into service. On subsequent inspections the FAA raised additional issues and that’s how we got to where we are today. So our mechanics did not fail us in any way. There were hearings last week, and the FAA is under its own set of pressures but I believe that it’s simply continuing to hold the industry to the same high standard it always has.”
While American Airlines mechanics were able to prevent the chafing of wires targeted by the AD and the service bulletin, Arpey said, “we didn’t do it precisely in accordance with the AD and I take responsibility for that.”
American Airlines wasn’t the only airline to ground flights because of increased FAA attention. Southwest grounded flights during its issues with the airframe AD, and in mid-April, Trans States Airlines cancelled dozens of flights for a check of nosewheel steering mechanism relay switches on its Embraer ERJ 145 fleet.
The renewed focus on maintenance compliance even resulted in an argument between the FAA and maintenance provider AAR over whether incorrect paint had been used to coat overhauled landing-gear components, with Boeing finally weighing in with its approval of the “unauthorized” paint. The paint issue again raises the question of whether the compliance focus is related to actual safety of flight issues (spirit of the law) or a new focus on the strict legal interpretation of airworthiness (letter of the law).
The Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, seems to recognize the implications of letter-of-the-law compliance issues and how that can easily paralyze the U.S. transportation system, as nearly happened with the American Airlines groundings.
DOT secretary Mary Peters announced on April 18 an independent study team that will recommend ways to improve the FAA’s safety culture and systems. The team includes former Air Line Pilots Association president and CEO Randolph Babbitt; William McCabe, president of consulting firm The McCabe Group and former member of the NBAA’s safety committee; Malcolm Sparrow, professor of the practice of public management at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government; ICAO ambassador Ed Stimpson, who is also former president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association; and former NTSB member Carl Vogt.
Secretary Peters also said that the FAA is “implementing a new program to track the inspections being conducted by field offices that will alert key personnel whenever a safety inspection is overdue.” The FAA will also create a new National Safety Inspection Review Team that will conduct “focused and comprehensive safety reviews” at air carriers where safety data indicates problems might occur.