- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal aviation inspectors would have to wait two years before taking airline jobs in which they deal with their old government boss under legislation passed by the House on Tuesday.

The legislation, passed 392-0, is designed to pushed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to improve its safety-inspection practices and end the FAA’s overly close relations with the airlines industry. It is in response to recent reports of lapses in FAA safety oversight and testimony by FAA inspectors that their jobs were threatened when they reported problems with some airlines.

The bill is “an initial legislative step in reversing the complacency over safety regulations that have set in at the highest levels of the Federal Aviation Administration,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, who sponsored the bill with the top Republican on the committee, Rep. John L. Mica of Florida.

The measure, which now moves to the Senate, would require a two-year “cooling-off” period before an FAA safety inspector who oversees a specific airline can go to work for that airline and represent it in matters before the FAA.

It also stipulates that an FAA principal maintenance inspector may not oversee the operations of a single carrier for a period of more than five years.

An Associated Press investigation last April found numerous industry leaders who once were under the FAA authority then in top positions at the agency. Similarly, many former FAA officials and congressional aides have found lucrative jobs in the air-travel industry or with its lobbying groups.

Other provisions create an independent safety office within the FAA to look into whistleblower safety complaints and direct the FAA to reverse a 2003 initiative that required inspectors to treat air carriers as “customers.”

“If there is a customer, it is the traveling public, not the airline,” Mr. Oberstar said.

The FAA, in a statement responding to the legislation’s introduction last week, said the agency already took steps to address some of the issues raised by lawmakers, including the handling of safety complaints by employees.

Mr. Oberstar acknowledged the agency initiated changes, “but I think the FAA’s response has been wholly inadequate.”

Mr. Mica stressed the FAA has overseen an airline industry that is the safest in the world. “Our intent here is to take a safe system where we found some problems and to correct it.”

Mr. Oberstar referred to problems at Southwest Airlines, which was hit with a record $10.2 million fine for continuing to fly dozens of Boeing 737s that hadn’t been inspected for cracks in their fuselages. Following that, the FAA ordered the audit of maintenance records at all domestic airlines.

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