Bipartisan Bill Targets ‘Cozy’ Ties Between Airlines, Safety Agency

July 17, 2008

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill this week aimed at ending the Federal Aviation Administration’s sometimes cozy relationship with the airline industry and reversing purported complacency on safety oversight.

Several Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives, led by Public Works and Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, a Democrat, said they were introducing the bill to force changes on the FAA that it has been reluctant to make on its own.

“We don’t trust the FAA to do this on their own, and that’s without regard to whatever administration is in place,” Oberstar said. “There is a culture at the FAA that is evolving and changing and we need to change it more.”

The House bill would:

Create an independent Aviation Safety Whistle-blower Investigation Office within the FAA to investigate safety complaints.

Direct the FAA to stop treating airlines as customers and halt the practice of allowing airlines to choose which FAA inspectors will inspect their operations.

Set a two-year “cooling-off period” before FAA inspectors or FAA employees who supervise inspectors can go to work for an airline.

Require the FAA to rotate principle maintenance inspectors between airline oversight offices every five years.

Require the FAA to review its database of safety compliance reports monthly to spot trends and take timely action.

FAA officials noted in a statement responding to the legislation’s introduction that the agency already has acted to deal with some of the issues raised by lawmakers, including the handling of safety complaints by employees. Lawmakers said the actions did not go far enough.

The FAA statement also said the agency is moving to enact a rule that would bar FAA inspectors who go to work for airlines from “interacting” with the agency for two years afterward.

Late last month, the Department of Transportation launched an investigation into FAA practices, including how the agency reviews flight risks, its air carrier compliance measures and its oversight of maintenance practices.

In April, FAA inspectors testified at a congressional hearing that their jobs were threatened when they reported maintenance and inspection problems with some airlines.

The agency, under Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell, took the rare position early this year of ordering the audit of maintenance records at all domestic airlines after reports of missed safety inspections at Southwest Airlines. The airline was hit with a record $10.2 million fine for continuing to fly dozens of Boeing 737s, which carried an estimated 145,000 passengers, that had not been inspected for cracks in their fuselages.

“Unfortunately the FAA seldom acts until they are pushed to act,” said Democratic Rep. Jerry Costello.

With only a few months left on Congress’ legislative calendar, the bill’s sponsors acknowledged it would be difficult to enact the bill this year. They said they want to send FAA a strong message.

Rep. John Mica, the committee’s ranking Republican member, called the bill “a shot across FAA’s bow.”

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