Evidence points to FAA's laxity

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Mon June 09 2003, 10:00 AM
Evidence points to FAA's laxity
Evidence points to FAA's laxity on plane maintenance

When an Air Midwest commuter plane crashed after takeoff in Charlotte last January, killing all 21 aboard, authorities initially suspected the plane was overweight. But last month, evidence at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing also showed the pilots couldn't level the plane because a control had been improperly adjusted.
The faulty repairs were done by a mechanic trainee provided through two outside contractors handling maintenance. The trainee and his supervisor skipped 12 steps laid out in the maintenance manual for work on the elevator controls that failed, according to NTSB records.

The chilling evidence illuminates the potential for fatal errors at a time when the airline industry increasingly is turning maintenance work over to outsiders. It also raises concerns about the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) ability to oversee a more complex system for ensuring safe flying � especially given the FAA's history of weak oversight of airline maintenance.

In the past decade, airlines increasingly have farmed out maintenance to trim more costly in-house operations. In 2001, major airlines paid contractors $2.9 billion � 80% more than in 1996, according to the Transportation Department's inspector general. Out-sourcing has accelerated recently as financially ailing airlines looked for savings.

That trend and the Charlotte crash ought to be "warning flags" for the FAA to determine whether its current rules are ensuring the safety the government has promised, says former NTSB chairman James Hall.

The FAA's maintenance-oversight policies were put into place at a time when airlines depended more on their own mechanics. But as maintenance responsibility has shifted, the policies have not. Now, worrisome signs raise questions about their adequacy.

�Outdated oversight In spite of airlines' moves to send more work outside, the FAA "continues to target more resources" on in-house facilities, the inspector general testified last April. He is conducting an audit of the repair stations and FAA oversight.

� Overseas gaps. The 629 foreign repair stations certified by the FAA to service U.S. aircraft may not be strictly monitored by the FAA and airlines because of their distance from U.S.-based airline operations, increasing the potential risk for error, says Michael Barr, director of the University of Southern California's aviation safety program.

�Outdated training. The FAA's training program for mechanics has not changed significantly in 50 years, leaving them without the skills needed to work on today's sophisticated planes, the congressional General Accounting Office reported in March.

An FAA spokesman insists the agency adequately monitors maintenance that carriers farm out. The FAA also says that while it is the "enforcement agency," airlines are "fundamentally responsible to operate at the highest levels of safety."

But previous crashes show the airlines can't be trusted to police maintenance on their own. Last year, the NTSB faulted the FAA for letting Alaska Airlines lubricate a critical airline jackscrew less frequently. Failure of a jackscrew caused the crash of an Alaska jetliner in 2000 that killed 88 people.

FAA oversight of repair stations needs to keep up with the industry's growing dependence on off-site facilities. When the system designed to ensure safe maintenance allows for an inexperienced mechanic to disregard steps in a repair manual, that's a clear sign of unaddressed problems.

Deadly records

Jan. 31, 2000: An Alaska Airlines jet crashes into the Pacific, killing 88. Among the causes: the failure of a part that the FAA told Alaska it could lubricate less frequently.

May 11, 1996: A ValuJet plane crashes in the Florida Everglades after a cargo-bay fire, killing 110. Among the causes: inadequate monitoring of a maintenance contractor by ValuJet and the FAA.

Feb. 24, 1989: A United Airlines cargo door blows out over Hawaii, killing nine. Among the causes: United's improper inspection and the FAA's earlier failure to follow up on a similar incident.

April 28, 1988: A section of an Aloha Airlines plane tears away over the Pacific, killing a flight attendant. Cause: poor airline maintenance and weak FAA oversight.