- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Bush administration Wednesday announced 13 new guidelines the Federal Aviation Administration plans to follow to avoid the kind of safety-inspection lapses that led to the grounding of thousands of commercial airliners in March and April.

The guidelines are designed to ensure inspection schedules and standards are strictly enforced. They were developed by an “independent review team” of airline-safety experts Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters convened to figure out what went wrong with inspection practices at the FAA’s Dallas office.

Some FAA whistleblowers accused managers of allowing airlines to self-report safety problems without checking them independently. They also said managers allowed airlines to delay required inspections because of a “cozy relationship” they developed.

The whistleblowers’ reports led to a congressional investigation, the grounding of thousands of flights nationwide, a record $10.2 million fine against Southwest Airlines and possible larger fines pending for American Airlines.

The guidelines Mrs. Peters announced Wednesday would require retraining of FAA managers and instituting uniform inspection standards nationwide.

The independent review team found that airline safety was generally good in the U.S., but that FAA managers sometimes used inconsistent methods for inspections at different airports.

“The intent is clear: Make sure everyone understands that the only customer that matters in the end is the flying public,” Mrs. Peters said.

The guidelines are based on the team’s recommendations. Mrs. Peters said they would be implemented immediately.

Other recommendations called for rigorous oversight of the FAA’s voluntary-disclosure program, which allows airlines to report safety problems without penalty if they are corrected promptly.

The FAA is setting up an automated data system to track airlines’ compliance with the voluntary-disclosure program.

The agency plans to regularly audit airport field offices that use the same FAA management for more than three years to avoid “overly cozy” relationships, in which safety standards become lax, Mrs. Peters said.

A spokesman for Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said a better option would be to regularly rotate managers between regional offices to avoid the risk of a “too long and friendly relationship with a given airline.”

FAA managers in Dallas were criticized in congressional testimony for spending too much time checking data on office computers and not enough time in the field inspecting airplanes.

The Transportation Department is conducting a yearlong study of the best balance of time for managers between data analysis and field inspections. The FAA plans to use the study results to allocate how managers spend time on the job.

Industry officials were pleased with the independent review team’s report finding airline safety is generally good.

“At the same time, we recognize that there is always room for improvement, and we will work with the FAA to adopt the team’s suggestions,” the Air Transport Association of America, an industry trade group, said.

American Airlines officials said they are willing to cooperate with the FAA to improve safety, but deny FAA allegations of safety problems with their MD-80 aircraft.

“We’re adamant that there never was a safety-of-flight issue with those airplanes,” said Tim Wagner, American Airlines spokesman.

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