DALLAS — Six months after the debacle over safety inspections at Southwest Airlines, after which I concluded that the FAA had scapegoated Southwest with a massive penalty after it became clear that Congress would be scrutinizing FAA inspection practices and personnel. Southwest executives I spoke to emphasized that Southwest is in full compliance with FAA regs, and they reiterated Southwest’s long-term safety record. They also said that the incident has had no negative effect on long-term customer support or opinion — in fact, they told me, people were impressed with “how transparent we were” in dealing with the situation.
But given that Southwest had not yet paid the FAA’s record fine — reports indicate that the airline is negotiating it — I thought I’d see if the airline has any thoughts about improvements in the FAA’s structure or operations. It turns out they don’t. One executive I talked to referred to the independent review team that gave the FAA high marks last month. He also cited the superiority of the U.S. aviation system’s safety record, confirmed in August by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Given these assessments and results, he said, the FAA is doing things right.
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Representative James Oberstar
Yesterday, Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and three cosponsors introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure “arms-length” safety regulation of airlines by the FAA. The legislation comes as a result of the inspection debacle that took place this spring. During hearings on the subject, Oberstar repeatedly criticized what he called a “cozy” relationship between the FAA and the airlines it inspects.
For news coverage, see the Washington Post story. Now, let’s dig into the legislation, which you can find through THOMAS or the GPO.
The Aviation Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 (HR 6493) calls for: (more…)
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As I’ve written before, the failure of the FAA in the Southwest Airlines case and elsewhere seems to stem from a personnel problem. The safety inspection chain of command at the agency ignored and abetted an inspector who was consistently neglecting policies and procedures. This is not an indictment of the FAA’s collaborative approach to maintenance inspection. But at the hearing last week, Jim Oberstar and many others (GOP and Dem) criticized the “cozy” relationship between the airlines and the FAA and called for a return to the adversarial approach to regulation. Stung by congressional criticism, the FAA responded by swinging wildly toward austerity, the biggest example of which is this week’s American Airlines fiasco.
A WSJ editorial today pins the blame for the AA cancellations on Oberstar, whom it says the FAA is kowtowing to: “An industry-wide ‘audit’ commenced, and FAA inspectors set about finding something – anything – awry with an aircraft to show Mr. Oberstar and other Congressional overseers that the agency was up to the job of enforcing federal maintenance requirements to the letter.”
The editorial continues:
Mr. Oberstar and other Democrats in Congress would just as soon do to the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product and Safety Commission and other “consumer protection” agencies exactly what they’ve managed to do to the FAA inside of a month’s time. . . .
The FAA fiasco gives us a glimpse of what the world would look like under this reregulatory assault. It would mean that every business misstep, no matter how rare, could potentially result in industry-wide repercussions. Congress would call for more rules and greater enforcement, in the name of “safety.” And regulatory agencies would respond with overkill. The cost of doing business would rise, and consumers would pay for it in higher prices, less convenience or both.
Whether any of this would in fact produce safer toys or food or medicines is beside the point for lawmakers like Mr. Oberstar, whose real goal is to augment Washington’s power vis-a-vis industry. But it’s worth noting that in the case of air travel, safety gains have accompanied less regulation, not more.
We don’t need to change the way the FAA inspects aircraft. We need to change its circle-the-wagons culture and to root out personnel problems. A single Douglas Gawadzinski, left unchallenged, erodes institutional effectiveness. He and his supervisors should be dealt with, all the way up to top safety honcho Nick Sabatini. At the House hearing, Sabatini took “responsibility” for the FAA’s safety lapses. If he means that, he should probably resign. His successor should work not on public appeasement gestures (after this week of cancellations, I suspect the flying public has had it up to here with “safety”) but on sound personnel management.
Flying the Oberstar Skies [WSJ]
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According to an AP report, the agency is reassigning Southwest Region Flight Standards Director Thomas Stuckey to an administrative position without safety oversight responsibilities.
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On Thursday night I posted the narrative that emerged about the Southwest Airlines-FAA maintenance debacle. Now I’d like to post some of my observations and offer some policy lessons from the April 3 hearing. You should read the Thursday post before you look at this one.
- The “collaborative” relationship between airlines and regulators doesn’t have to end. We need not return to the adversarial days; it’s possible to ensure safety better when airlines are encouraged to self-report. (A Wall Street Journal article this morning showed how collaboration between airlines, the FAA, and the National Transportation Safety Board allowed for understanding of a crucial safety issue.) Several members of Congress, including Chairman Jim Oberstar, a smart, well-informed, and extremely influential voice on aviation issues, said that the collaborative relationship as manifest in the FAA’s Customer Service Initiative needs to be scaled back. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii commented on the “too-close relationship between the regulator and the regulated.” Ranking member John Mica said that he “was a strong advocate of a risk-based and self-reporting system” before this “wake-up call.” But there was no indication that collaboration and self-reporting are themselves to blame. Southwest self-reported as it should have. The problem was personnel. (more…)
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There were systemic breakdowns in the FAA’s airline safety inspection program, key whistleblowers testified before Congress on April 3. One unaccountable inspector, enabled by a culture of relaxed standards, allowed Southwest Airlines (SWA) to violate FAA rules and airworthiness directives. FAA line staff, top agency officials, and SWA executives testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a hearing to examine whether “partnership programs” between airlines and the FAA have compromised safety. (For background on this issue, click here and here.)
Until the 1990s, the FAA had a rather adversarial relationship with the airlines they regulated. FAA executives say that the relationship hindered safety, as airlines would hide problems rather than report safety problems. In order to improve their ability to solve safety issues, the FAA launched initiatives aimed at developing a fruitful relationship with the airlines: the Customer Service Initiative (CSI), which treated airlines like clients rather than opponents, and the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (VDRP), under which airlines that disclosed safety concerns before the FAA uncovered them would not be penalized. The hearing was occasioned by the conviction of many committee members that these programs have tilted the FAA too far from its regulatory role. “The only customer,” said chairman Jim Oberstar in his opening remarks, “is the air-traveling public.”
The first panel of witnesses was composed of a number of current and former FAA inspection staff with roles in the SWA inspection debacle. Here’s what they said: (more…)
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WASHINGTON — In testimony today before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, several current and former FAA employees related their roles in the lapses in inspection of Southwest Airlines, how supervisors collaborated with the airline to minimize the punishments, and how a culture of lack of accountability was built up in the FAA’s southwest region.
More and more details continue to emerge about the Southwest inspections matter, which I’ve written about here and here. On March 6, the FAA announced a $10M fine against Southwest for operating forty-six of its 737-500 aircraft between March 15 and March 23, 2007. Under the FAA’s Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (in which airlines can self-report maintenance flaws without risking fines or public censure), the FAA reported the lapse in inspections on the forty-six aircraft for a specific defect: the possibility of cracks in the fuselage. (Six planes had cracking, as it turns out.) Southwest continued to operate these forty-six planes after March 15 — the offense for which they were fined — which Southwest claims was approved by the FAA. Today’s testimony makes clear that Southwest’s operation of these aircraft during that interval was approved.
One Douglas Gawadzinski, the principal maintenance inspector in the FAA’s Certification Management Office (CMO) for Southwest, was cast as the villain of the hearing. Bobby Boutris, one of the inspectors in the office, reported that Gawadzinski routinely made Boutris downgrade his notices to Southwest from enforceable “letters of investigation” to advisory “letters of concern.” Gawadzinski was apparently friendly with a former FAA inspector who had gone to work for Southwest, and he pressured the other inspectors to go easy on the airline, taking the FAA’s friendly regulator approach to the airlines much too far.
There’s a lot more to report, but the hearing will reconvene soon (with FAA officials and Southwest executives on tap to testify). I’ll write more when I get a chance. DEVELOPING…
UPDATE: The first part of my full report is here.
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I’ve been watching the Southwest Airlines inspections controversy unfold over the past week without much comment (except for one post), trying to make sense of what’s happening. There are some big red flags in the way the FAA has handled this case.
Here’s what’s happened so far:
- On March 15, 2007, Southwest notified the FAA that it had failed to conduct one routine inspection procedure on forty-six of its older Boeing 737 models (from the “Classic” series). These tests look for cracks in the fuselage and are mandated by the FAA due to the age and particular characteristics of this aircraft.
- Southwest claims that the FAA approved a plan to inspect the planes while keeping them in operation over the next ten days. The FAA denies this.
- Southwest continued to fly these planes between March 15 and March 23, when the inspections were completed. Southwest’s inspections revealed that six jets had cracks. They were repaired and returned to service.
- Southwest considered the matter closed by April 2007.
- On March 6, 2008, the FAA announced that it had proposed a $10.2M penalty against Southwest for “deliberately” operating the forty-six aircraft between March 15 and March 23.
- Southwest claimed the FAA had approved its inspection plan, denied that it ever operated unsafe aircraft, and announced an internal investigation.
- On March 11, Southwest grounded thirty-eight aircraft for inspection and found and repaired cracks on four of them.
Here’s what I make of this: (more…)
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The FAA has filed an action for a $10.2 million fine against Southwest Airlines on account of operating aircraft without conducting a particular routine inspection on them. Here’s the story: For some unstated reason, Southwest failed to conduct “mandatory inspections for fuselage fatigue cracking” on forty-six Boeing 737 Classic-series aircraft from June 2006 to March 2007. Southwest notified the FAA of its lapse on March 15, 2007, and according to the airline, “The FAA approved our actions and considered the matter closed as of April 2007.” Apparently not. According to the FAA, “after Southwest Airlines discovered that it had failed to accomplish the required repetitive inspections, between March 15, 2007 and March 23, 2007, it continued to operate those same 46 airplanes on an additional 1,451 flights. The amount of the civil penalty reflects the serious nature of those deliberate violations.” Southwest is not denying that it operated these flights, and according to a statement from Boeing, “Southwest Airlines contacted Boeing for verification of its technical opinion that the continued operation of SWA’s Classic 737s, for up to 10 days until the airplanes could be reinspected, did not pose a safety of flight issue.” Boeing did not believe the safety of Southwest’s fleet was ever compromised. So, to recap: Southwest thought that the FAA had approved operating the aircraft between discovering the lack of testing and the conclusion of testing, and the FAA says it never approved such a plan.
At the heart of this issue, as best I can see it, is the phrase “deliberate violations.” What did Southwest think constituted FAA approval? We need to wait and see how Southwest officially responds to the FAA’s action to learn more. I’ve queried Southwest, and if I hear more details, I’ll post them. This is a very serious issue. Some observers (including the usual suspects in Congress) are jumping to conclusions, but I think we need to wait and see what else Southwest has to say.
FAA accuses Southwest of ‘deliberate violations,’ proposes $10.2 million fine [ATW Daily News]
We Take Safety Seriously [Nuts about Southwest]
Photo credit: Flickr user Cubbie_n_Vegas. Used through a Creative Commons license
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