Very Interesting USA Today editorial & FAA's Follow-up

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Mon November 28 2005, 09:10 AM
Very Interesting USA Today editorial & FAA's Follow-up
Posted 11/24/2005 7:27 PM

4 years, no plane crashes, but new risks emerge
If you're reading this in the crush of an airport lobby, take heart in one statistic: There hasn't been a major jetliner crash in the USA in nearly four years.
The domestic airline industry has an enviable record for safety, but don't get too comfortable. Financial turmoil, outsourcing of airline maintenance and the federal government's lagging performance as a safety watchdog threaten that accomplishment.

Sorry to spoil your flight. But passengers have a right to know what's going on beneath the silvery skins of all those jetliners.

Fliers are certainly familiar with some of the turbulence in the airline industry. But putting several dismal strains together paints an unsettling picture:

"¢ Failing finances. Eight airlines are in bankruptcy reorganization, including three of the nation's largest: United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines. Each is looking to trim costs. Several are battling their unions over wages and benefits. Stressed, unhappy employees are handling crucial jobs. At Northwest, union mechanics have been on strike since August, and, by now, most of the strikers have been replaced.

"¢ Increased outsourcing. Nine of the nation's largest airlines, many of which handled the bulk of their maintenance work in-house for years, farmed out an average 54% to outsiders last year. About 4,500 of these third-party repair stations are located in the USA; 676 are overseas, in places as far-flung as El Salvador and China.

"¢ Lagging oversight. There's nothing wrong per se with outsourcing repairs, as long as the Federal Aviation Administration is strictly watching these third parties. But Transportation Department Inspector General Ken Mead told a Senate subcommittee last week that the FAA has been too slow to respond to this sea change in maintenance.

In a 2003 study, Mead's office found the FAA had not shifted its focus "to where the maintenance was actually performed" "” at outside repair shops. For example, inspectors for a carrier that outsourced nearly half its maintenance did 400 inspections in-house, but only seven at the outside repair stations.

Overseas, the 138 FAA-certified repair stations in France, Germany and Ireland are inspected not by the FAA but by aviation authorities in those countries. Their reports to the FAA were, in some cases, "incomplete or incomprehensible," many of them written in a foreign language, Mead said.

A shrinking inspection staff, smaller than the one the FAA had last year, is facing these challenges. FAA's vows to complete major reforms by last summer have slipped, according to the inspector general's office.

The FAA disagrees with Mead's assessment and maintains the situation is under control. That's eerily reminiscent of the FAA of a decade ago, which denied increasing signs that overburdened inspectors were not keeping up with a swiftly changing industry.

The fiery crash of a ValuJet plane in Florida's Everglades in 1996 shook the FAA and Congress out of their torpor. The crash, in which 110 died, revealed weak monitoring of outside contractors by the airline and the FAA. The government reformed its oversight "” changes followed by years of safety gains.

Everyone wants to maintain that enviable record, even as the industry lurches through painful change. But dismissing the warnings of knowledgeable critics is no way to achieve that urgent goal.

Today on AVWeb:

FAA Takes Credit For Airline Safety...
Administrator Slams USA Today Editorial
In an unusually acerbic letter published in Friday's USA Today, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey claims that the near-perfect airline safety record of the past four years (several fatal commuter-line crashes don't appear to count in either Blakey's or USA Today's reckoning) is the result of the "enormous effort and singular focus by the FAA and the industry to achieve a historic safety record." Blakey was responding to a USA Today editorial that appeared the previous day that, in directly addressing airline passengers, asserts that they "have a right to know what's going on beneath the silvery skins of all those jetliners." The editorial refers to testimony by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General Ken Mead, who told a congressional committee he's concerned about FAA oversight of maintenance contractors. He suggested that contractors, particularly overseas companies, get less scrutiny than the maintenance departments of the airlines themselves. USA Today seized on the sentiment and reminded readers of the ValuJet crash in Florida (which, incidentally, was caused by a cargo bay fire started by leaking oxygen canisters and had nothing to do with operating parts of the airplane), the investigation of which showed weak monitoring of contract maintenance facilities.

...System Good, Getting Better, Says Blakey...
In her letter, Blakey said the FAA has moved away from a "checklist" approach to safety programs to a risk-based system in which inspectors can spot safety trends and then direct carriers to adjust their in-house safety programs to solve problems before they result in a crash. Blakey also appears to dispute Mead's suggestion that foreign-based maintenance contractors are under-inspected or that the inspections themselves are somehow deficient because they are carried out by the host country's aviation authorities. She claims that while U.S. maintenance shops undergo 30 audits a year, foreign operators get checked an average of 74 times a year, and in countries that have bilateral agreements with the U.S., contractors must maintain FAA certification to work on U.S. planes. But the editorial was skeptical of the FAA's defense of its safety programs. "That's eerily reminiscent of the FAA of a decade ago, which denied increasing signs that overburdened inspectors were not keeping up with a swiftly changing industry," the editorial read. However, Blakey says the proof is in the safety record, which now stands at one fatality for every 15 million passenger flights. "So it is disappointing that the newspaper continues an editorial position that ignores how the nation's airline safety program got to this point," Blakey wrote.

...Where The Fears Really Lie
While the focus appears to be on maintenance outsourcing, FAA officials privately admit that their greatest fear of an accident has nothing to do with a mechanical failure. Sources have told AVweb in the past that they consider the greatest risk for another airliner disaster to be on the ground and not in the air. And according to an FAA study, a cluster of three California airports, John Wayne, Long Beach and LAX, rank first, second and third in both the outright number of incursions and the number of incursions per 100,000 flights. Because LAX caters almost exclusively to airliners, the FAA is most concerned about its incursion rate, which is fueled by its design. Aircraft must cross active runways to get to the terminal. Boston's Logan Airport has also had an unusually bad year for incursions (15 so far) and officials are taking action. There are now limits on which runways can be used for takeoff and air traffic controllers are getting more training. The FAA and Massachusetts Port Authority are also going to speed up construction of a taxiway that will eliminate the need for aircraft to cross runways to get to the terminal. Logan may end up as a test bed for new anti-incursion technology, such as runway warning lights similar to traffic lights that would alert pilots to possible collisions. No timeline has been set for any of the projects and the FAA admits that not all problems will be solved. "We would be living in a dream world if we thought this would be a cure all," FAA spokesman Jim Peters told the Boston Globe.

Btw, swissair was caused by the FAA's lack of oversight of the contractors that installed the 'entertainment system' (IFEN) on their airliners. I hear that the FAA hasn't corrected that problem at all- in fact has made it worse.
Mon November 28 2005, 09:14 AM
BTw, here is the FAA's (IMHO), bs response.

Posted 11/24/2005 7:29 PM

Historic safety record
By Marion Blakey
Last June, USA TODAY said aviation "is experiencing its safest period in history." So it is disappointing that the newspaper continues an editorial position that ignores how the nation's airline safety program got to this point.
The reason the commercial fatal accident rate for air travelers is one in every 15 million passenger flights is that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has changed the way it oversees air carriers as the airline business has changed. We have 2,980 field inspectors conducting nearly 225,000 inspections a year. But more important, we have a system that allows us to ensure that airlines and maintenance facilities, regardless of location, are taking the necessary steps to operate safely.

Nearly a decade ago, the FAA took bold steps to move away from a "checklist" approach toward a risk-based system that emphasizes quality assurance programs and self-audits. The FAA has more proprietary information from airlines and operational data from pilots and aircraft recorders than it has ever had. These tools enable our inspectors to analyze data, spot safety trends and prioritize risks before accidents happen and to help carriers adjust their safety programs as their business changes.

Repair-station oversight is a good example of why this approach is the most effective. The average domestic repair station undergoes more than 30 audits a year by the FAA, aircraft operators and internal management. For foreign repair stations, the number of audits jumps to 74 a year, including oversight by international civil aviation authorities.

In countries where we have Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreements, we also have procedures to ensure that foreign inspectors place appropriate emphasis on FAA regulations when conducting reviews of work done on U.S. aircraft. These stations must also renew their FAA certificates every 12 to 24 months. They can lose their certificates if they do not meet our standards.

USA TODAY vastly underestimates the enormous effort and singular focus by the FAA and the industry to achieve a historic safety record. Some risk is inherent in any form of transportation, but in aviation, we are striving to reduce it by continuous improvement.

Travelers should be assured that the FAA will never rest, will remain vigilant, and will continue to deliver effective safety oversight.
Mon November 28 2005, 09:24 AM
Of course, this reminds me of when the FAA stated that there were no U.S. crashes in 1998, even though the swissair airliner was an American-made plane, (complete with mylar insulation), with an American-made entertainment system, certified as safe by the FAA, and over 140 Americans died in that crash. We were incensed. They are extremely dishonest in our experience. Just read Stoller's articles that are posted in our site to see just how dishonest they are. Not counting commuter flights? That's bizarre. Oh and they didn't bother to put the 4 planes that were downed by the terrorists into their statistics, even though lack of good airport security was at the root of why that happened. That's the FAA for you- never taking responsibility for the disaster they cause.
Mon November 28 2005, 10:19 AM
"That's the FAA for you- never taking responsibility for the disaster they cause."

Guess I should have said, 'disaster that they don't prevent', rather than that they cause. Of course, that is the FAA's job- to keep passengers safe with their oversight.