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Thu, Jun 09, 2005

IG Report: FAA Falling Down On The Job

Report Says Airlines' Financial Woes Could Lead To Safety Problems

A new report by the Department of Transportation Inspector General says the FAA is falling behind in trying to keep up with airline maintenance -- especially as carriers hurting for cash are more and more prone to cut corners.

Especially worrisome to the IG was the increasing trend of outsourcing airline maintenance. Given FAA budget cuts, the report criticized the FAA for only inspecting three of the five most financially-struggling airlines.

The IG report also took the FAA to task for failing to properly monitor low-cost carriers.

The FAA reacted angrily to the report. Spokesman Greg Martin said the IG "vastly underestimates the enormous effort by FAA and industry to achieve the historic safety record that we have." Martin was quoted by the Wall Street Journal.

Martin said the air travel system is as safe as it's ever been -- pointing out there hasn't been a fatal mishap involving a major carrier in the past three-and-a-half years.

Martin also said the FAA is certainly aware of the outsourcing trend. Between 2002 and 2004, the amount of airline maintenance sent to outside contractors rose from 47-percent to 53-percent -- and it's still rising.

But the FAA is factoring outsourced maintenance into its monitoring program, making sure outside shops do as good a job as the airlines' own mechanics.

Still, up to 90-percent of outsourced maintenance work is performed at night and, according to the audit, FAA inspectors spend only three-percent of their total time conducting after-hours inspections. The FAA said that figure is more like ten-percent.

"Whatever issues may or may not be impacting the FAA's safety oversight, FAA inspections are secondary to the robust quality-assurance programs the airlines adhere to in overseeing all maintenance work," ATA spokesman Jack Evans told the Journal.

But the financial pressures are indeed changing the safety culture at airlines, according to the IG report.

"We found instances in which air carriers operating with short gate-turnaround time did not adhere to required operating procedures," the report said.

As an example, the Journal reported, three aircraft at one LCC were found to have a total of 16 maintenance discrepancies that weren't on the logbooks. The report said the LCC was waiting until the last flight of the day to address the issues so that there would be no flight delays.

The report found that, after another carrier shut down a major maintenance facility and outsourced the work to a company with known safety issues, the FAA failed to step up its inspection regime or reassess the risks.

FMI: www.faa.gov

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