Bill proposes distance between airlines and FAA regulators

 - August 31, 2008, 1:07 PM

The House of Representatives on July 22 unanimously approved a bipartisan aviation bill that tightens the FAA’s airline maintenance oversight procedures and creates an Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office.

The legislation was introduced in the House in response to concerns about the FAA’s oversight of airline maintenance programs. Agency employees and others raised concerns about this issue at an April 3 hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Among the criticisms leveled at the agency was that it had become too friendly with the airlines it regulates, allowing them to continue to fly aircraft that were past safety inspection deadlines.

The legislation calls for an independent whistleblower office within the FAA–but separate from the agency’s Aviation Safety Organization–to investigate safety complaints and information submitted by FAA employees and employees of certified entities. The office would also be charged with recommending appropriate corrective actions to the FAA.

H.R.6493, the “Aviation Safety Enhancement Act of 2008,” was passed 392-0. It is unclear when similar legislation might move through the Senate.

The legislation also establishes a two-year “cooling off” period for FAA inspectors or people responsible for oversight of FAA inspectors before they can act as an agent or representative of a certificate holder that they oversaw during their service with the agency.

It also requires the FAA to rotate principal maintenance inspectors among airline oversight offices every five years and directs the agency to stop referring to air carriers and other entities it regulates as “customers.” The only customers of the agency are individuals traveling on aircraft, the bill stated.

“The relationship between the FAA and the airlines must ensure that safety mandates are met,” said Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee. “While this can be a cooperative process, the airlines cannot be seen as clients. The flying public is who the FAA works for, and this bill will strongly reinforce that emphasis.”

The bill also requires the FAA to conduct monthly reviews of the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), which allows airlines to self-report maintenance problems and fixes. This will ensure that trends in regulatory compliance are identified and appropriate corrective actions are taken in accordance with agency regulations, according to the committee.

“The FAA and the airline industry have done well, but that doesn’t mean we can relax,” said Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), ranking Republican on the aviation subcommittee. “It’s great that the airlines have avoided any recent fatalities, but that’s not good enough as long as there are close calls in the air and the possibility of shortcuts in maintenance.”

A critical report by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general found that FAA managers last year allowed Southwest Airlines to fly 46 airplanes that were overdue for safety checks, ignoring the inspectors who raised concerns. Following audits at other carriers, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines grounded hundreds of airplanes for inspections, causing thousands of flights to be canceled.