- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

The federal government yesterday announced changes to its airline inspection system to avoid the kind of safety lapses that led to the grounding of thousands of aircraft this month.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will more closely monitor inspection schedules at airports nationwide, giving airlines less discretion to resolve their own safety problems.

“These steps will help make inspectors and managers even more accountable, keep airlines focused on safety and minimize disruptions for travelers,” Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said at an afternoon press conference outside FAA headquarters in Washington.

Mrs. Peters said she assembled a committee of experts from the FAA and airlines to prepare a report within two weeks about how safety oversights could have been avoided.

Other measures she announced include a new requirement that senior managers at FAA field offices validate voluntary safety disclosures by airlines and a program for alerting key personnel when a safety inspection is overdue.

The FAA also is revising its ethics rules to require a “cooling-off period” before FAA inspectors can work for an airline they previously oversaw.

The remedial safety measures follow weeks of airplane groundings to allow FAA inspection. The FAA grounded the aircraft in response to whistleblower disclosures that Southwest Airlines flew dozens of Boeing 737s after required inspections were due.

FAA inspectors testified before Congress that airlines were allowed to report safety problems voluntarily, sometimes without follow-up government safety inspections. Some FAA managers who overlooked safety problems were hired by the same airlines they oversaw, the inspectors said.

The FAA fined Southwest $10.2 million. The agency also grounded thousands of aircraft from Southwest, American, United and Delta airlines for safety inspections, primarily of wiring systems.

The groundings led to widespread delays for as many as half a million passengers. American Airlines estimated the groundings of about 3,300 of its aircraft and subsequent passenger delays will cost it $30 million.

“Today’s action by Secretary Peters is long-overdue recognition that the safety oversight between the FAA and the airlines isn’t working as well as it should,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat.

Last week, Mr. Rockefeller called on the FAA to fire supervisors who shared blame for allowing commercial aircraft to fly beyond their inspection dates. He is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on aviation operation, safety and security.

At a Wednesday hearing on aviation safety — the fourth this month — senators criticized acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell, saying he should have better supervised the field offices.

Yesterday, Mr. Sturgell and Mrs. Peters defended the FAA’s safety record, saying the new procedures they announced are improvements rather than an admission of failure.

“This is not a crackdown, it’s not getting tough,” Mr. Sturgell said. “It’s an attempt to verify that the system is working.”

Mrs. Peters said U.S. airline safety is at a historical high, with only five to eight fatalities for every 100 million passengers.

Airline officials were uncertain yesterday how the new rules would affect them and their passengers.

“We want to look through the details,” said Elizabeth Merida, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for commercial airlines.

She agreed with Mrs. Peters that the Transportation Department’s new committee of experts could shed light on safety problems.

“We fully support the formation of that committee,” Mrs. Merida said. “While we’re in one of the safest periods of aviation history, there’s always room for improvement.”

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