Flaws found in FAA's airline safety oversight system
Thursday, April 11, 2002
By JAMES WALLACE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
An airline safety oversight system that came under close examination and severe criticism for not identifying maintenance problems at Alaska Airlines before the crash of Flight 261 is still not working properly, the Transportation Department's inspector general has found. In a report released yesterday, the inspector general said many of the Federal Aviation Administration's 500 inspectors are not well-trained in how best to use the system.
Representatives of the inspector general's office and the FAA are scheduled to testify about the system today at a House aviation subcommittee hearing.
The 4-year-old Air Transportation Oversight System, known as ATOS, was developed to analyze data in order to spot and correct problems before they can cause an accident. The data are supposed to direct inspectors to areas at an airline that need attention.
Among the FAA inspectors interviewed, 71 percent said their training was inadequate and that they did not know enough about the new inspection methods, the report said.
Inspectors cannot "effectively determine changes air carriers need to make" or "target resources to the greatest safety risks," according to the report.
Of the principal inspectors interviewed, 83 percent said the system data were inadequate to help them focus on specific areas of concern with an airline. Principal inspectors are the managers who supervise airline inspections.
Another problem, according to the report, is that many inspectors are not assigned to the area where they are most needed.
For example, inspectors responsible for one large airline had headquarters in Boise, Idaho, where the airline scheduled only eight flights a day. The same airline had more than 700 daily flights in Chicago and Denver.
The FAA defended the system.
"Before the inspector general even completed his review of ATOS, the FAA had already reached many of the same conclusions and made changes that are now well under way," Nick Sabatini, associate FAA administrator for regulation and certification, said in a statement.
The FAA program was developed after the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades, which killed 110 people.
It has been implemented first among the nation's 10 biggest carriers. The inspector general said the FAA lacks an adequate timetable to expand the program to all U.S. carriers.
After the crash of Alaska Flight 261 in January 2000, the FAA's oversight system came under sharp scrutiny by the National Transportation Safety Board.
An FAA audit of the airline found serious deficiencies in the airline's maintenance program that had existed long before the crash.
The FAA's office in Renton later acknowledged that it had struggled to implement the ATOS system.
When he was interviewed as part of the NTSB investigation of the Alaska crash, John Hubbard, the FAA's principal maintenance inspector assigned to Alaska, said ATOS had resulted in little surveillance of the airline.
"That was basically the last straw for me -- ATOS," Hubbard, who retired near the end of 1999, told investigators. "We were too caught up with doing ATOS things to actually go out and do any surveillance."
Since the crash, the FAA has substantially beefed up the number of inspectors responsible for monitoring Alaska Airlines.
And the airline itself has made many changes to its maintenance program to improve safety.
The FAA's Sabatini said all the agency's 500 ATOS inspectors have been trained in system safety or will be in the next five months.
"We said from the outset that ATOS would be a continuous work in progress," he said.
"ATOS is not only conceptually sound, it is the only way the aviation industry will move to a level of safety above the extraordinary level that exists today."
P-I aerospace reporter James Wallace can be reached at 206-448-8040 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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