IG: FAA needs layers of oversight to fix safety gaps

The Federal Aviation Administration has begun actions to recover from the criticism it received during a congressional hearing April 3 that detailed systemic weaknesses in safety oversight

The FAA developed too close a relationship with Southwest airlines, a situation which led to breakdowns in safety oversight, the Transportation Department's inspector general told lawmakers. The agency depended on airlines to report problems under a program that encourages voluntary reporting of airworthiness issues. The coziness of the relationship produced lapses in the FAA’s national program for risk-based oversight, said Calvin Scovel III, Transportation’s inspector general, testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“We are concerned that FAA relies too heavily on self-disclosures and promotes a pattern of excessive leniency at the expense of effective oversight and appropriate enforcement. Further, a partnership program that does not ensure carriers correct underlying problems is less likely to achieve safety benefits,” Scovel said.

Southwest continued to fly aircraft that had not been safety-inspected and which later were found to have fuselage cracks. When the airline notified FAA's principal maintenance inspector, he did not ground the affected planes. Later, Southwest formally admitted the safety violation through a voluntary self-disclosure program. FAA fined the airline $10 million. Two inspectors reported that their supervisor had permitted Southwest to continue flying the aircraft.

Transportation’s IG also found that FAA failed to protect the employees who reported safety issues from retaliation, conduct an internal review and ensure that corrective actions were completed.

On the day before the hearing, April 2, FAA announced actions to begin correcting the situation. FAA will implement a Safety Issues Reporting System by the end of April as another mechanism to deal with safety concerns, said Robert Sturgell, acting administrator at FAA.

FAA also will expand its Aviation Safety Information and Analysis Sharing program to blend oversight data with other data sources for a better look at nationwide trends, he said.

FAA will develop a system to clarify rules and eliminate ambiguity and is initiating a process for proposed rules to address ethics policies. The agency will require senior airline officials to submit voluntary disclosure reports of safety violations.

”The bottom line, despite what a small few may imply, is that our system works and that flying is safer today than at any time in the past,” Sturgell said. That is because FAA has more access to more safety data than ever before.

He said he admitted to the breakdown in the system with Southwest Airlines. “There is no excuse. We have taken appropriate personnel action in-house.” FAA will take further action as the agency learns more, he added.

Scovel also urged FAA to:
 
• Establish an independent organization to conduct investigations of safety issues identified by the inspectors.

• Periodically rotate its supervisory inspectors to ensure objective oversight of air carriers.

• Verify and validate air carriers' comprehensive actions to fix violations.

• Institute a second inspector review of safety-related self-disclosures before they are accepted as closed.

• Implement a process to track inspections and alert FAA headquarters when they are overdue.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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