August 01, 1998
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FAA Inspectors Fail Inspection

The reason safety problems go unreported: too much paperwork

Are Federal Aviation Administration inspectors playing it straight with the flying public? If you accept the conclusions of a General Accounting Office report to Congress, the answer appears to be "no."

In a Feb. 27 report requested by senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), the GAO asserts that many of the federal government's airline safety inspectors don't bother to report all the problems or violations they observe, and that many inspections aren't thorough enough to detect violations.

This is scary because these inspections are intended not only to detect actual violations, but also to serve as part of an early warning device for identifying systemwide threats to aviation safety and security.

Why don't inspectors report the violations they discover? The problem, say most inspectors, is paperwork. Astoundingly, the GAO reported that more than half of the flight standards inspectors (66 percent) and security inspectors (58 percent) said they do not initiate enforcement cases because that would involve too much paperwork, especially for minor violations. The reporting problem is so pervasive that between 1990 and 1996, nearly 96 percent of the two million inspections conducted by Flight Standards and Security resulted in no reports of problems or violations. In the world of the Federal Aviation Authority, contend critics, everything is beautiful - in it own special way.

Aviation consultant Mike Boyd puts it bluntly: "We're dealing with a systemic problem," contends the president of The Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo. "It is not a problem of the inspectors being too busy....The FAA is badly managed and politically corrupted." As evidence, he cites the February 1996 case of an FAA inspector who was told to bury a report suggesting that ValuJet be shut down. Three months later, the airline's Flight 592 buried itself in the Florida Everglades.

Senator McCain, Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, is somewhat more restrained in his criticism. "I'm very concerned that once again the FAA has fallen short by not fully utilizing its capabilities to help determine potential aviation safety and security problems," McCain said in a statement released by his press office.

This isn't the first time the GAO has flamed the FAA. And it's not the first time the agency has responded - almost by rote - with assurances to the public that everything is just fine. In a prepared response to the report, the agency maintains, "The ultimate test of the effectiveness of the FAA's safety and security oversight system is not a measure of how many citations are written or how many fines are levied, but the safety of the entire system." The agency says the United States has the world's safest system, noting that during the period of the GAO's evaluation, some 3.6 billion flyers boarded 55 million scheduled flights and survived unscathed.

To be fair, FAA administrator Jane Garvey, who took over the agency in August 1997, wasn't at the controls during the GAO's probe. ValuJet didn't happen on her watch. She's bright and articulate and, proponents contend, can make real changes in her continually criticized agency. She's the first FAA administrator in history to be appointed for a set term - five years. This, hope some industry observers, could help shield her from political maneuverings and permit her to do the job of safe-guarding commercial aviation.

"Jane Garvey may be a very nice person," counters Boyd, "but she is no more qualified to run the FAA than she is to perform brain surgery." Although she has a transportation-oriented bureaucratic background, critics think more specific technical expertise is called for. Boyd adds: "She is not qualified to run a safety oversight organization."

It remains to be seen whether and how the aviation safety oversight organization will respond to the GAO's recommendations. Specifically, the GAO says the FAA can strengthen inspection and enforcement by:

  • Directing the FAA's inspection staff to report all observed problems and violations for inclusion in databases. That will make remedial action and enforcement easier to track.
  • Providing guidance to the FAA's inspection staff on how to distinguish between major and minor violations, and helping the agency's legal staff determine how to identify major legal cases.
  • Improving and integrating the FAA's inspection and enforcement databases.
  • The many lives flying the overcrowded skies may depend on these changes.

    Jerome Greer Chandler is a contributing editor to Frequent Flyer magazine, a sister publication of M&C. This article was adapted from Frequent Flyer.

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