- The Washington Times - Friday, July 16, 2004

A government watchdog agency yesterday accused the Federal Aviation Administration of not being tough enough in protecting the safety of the nation’s airline passengers.

Security lapses were the most common violation of federal airline-safety rules cited in the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), formerly the General Accounting Office.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, calls for better management controls to ensure that the FAA is enforcing safety rules regarding commercial airlines and private pilots.

The GAO said 29 percent of safety violations, or 55,877 cases, involved security issues, although it did not explain what kinds of security lapses occurred or specify how many took place after the September 11 attacks.

Another 21 percent of the violations involved flight operations and 15 percent involved maintenance; the rest fell into a variety of categories. They were spread among nearly 200,000 FAA enforcement actions from 1993 to 2003. Again, the report did not distinguish between incidents before or after the September 11 attacks.

The FAA no longer handles security issues, which were turned over to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after in the wake of the attacks.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, said careless safety enforcement represents a greater hazard now, when major airlines are near bankruptcy.

“At a time when the airlines are struggling financially, ineffective or inconsistent enforcement of aviation-safety regulations could undermine public confidence in the safety of flight,” said Mr. DeFazio, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.

“In fact, when airline revenue is low, the FAA should increase their scrutiny even more to be sure that the industry is not cutting corners on safety to save a few dollars and meet their bottom line,” he said.

After the terrorist attacks, Congress accused airlines of similar attempts to save money on security by using low-paid passenger screeners. Lawmakers moved supervision of the screeners to the TSA from the airlines.

The GAO report said:

• The FAA imposed $334 million in fines on airlines and pilots from 1993 to 2003, but the agency’s legal staff reduced the fines to $162 million.

• The FAA does not evaluate its own enforcement actions and, therefore, has no way of knowing whether they are effective.

• The FAA’s database for tracking rules violations is incomplete, is difficult to use and varies from office to office.

FAA officials agreed with some of the GAO’s findings, but disputed whether reducing fines showed that they were careless.

“What happens as in any legal case, negotiations are made, there are mitigating circumstances that are brought up,” said an FAA spokesman who asked not to be named. “Sometimes, there is not enough evidence to take it to court. This is not unusual to any regulatory agency.”

However, the FAA prosecutes when the evidence of a violation is clear, he said.

“We will if it is necessary and have done so,” the spokesman said.

The FAA closes more than half of the cases involving safety violations without imposing any fines or other sanctions, the GAO report said. Many violators received only warning notices.

“According to FAA, it reduces or eliminates the sanctions when it has proof that the violator is attempting to correct the violation or new evidence arises that may exonerate the alleged violator,” the GAO said.

About 3,200 cases are closed without taking any action against violators. The FAA listed insufficient evidence as a primary reason.

The GAO report drew denials from the airline industry.

“The report findings are flawed,” said Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for major airlines. “Airline travel is safer today than it has ever been in the history of commercial aviation. In the last 30 years, the number of airline accidents has decreased more than 50 percent.”

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an airline-passenger advocacy group, agreed that the FAA is lenient in reducing fines. But he said he doubted that airlines intentionally scrimped on safety.

“They always tend to cut in half what the safety inspectors recommend, and I think that shows up here in the numbers,” Mr. Stempler said. The airlines “don’t intentionally cut corners. Airlines know that cutting corners on safety will come back on them many times.”

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