FAA has inconsistently overseen airline safety, leading to thousands of grounded flights and intensifying congressional scrutiny over problems at Southwest and other airlines, Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., charged today. At a subcommittee hearing, Murray chided acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell for the agency’s failure to perform physical inspections of electrical wiring on planes. That prompted American Airlines to ground thousands of flights, including 450 MD-80 flights last month and 3,300 flights last week, so it could inspect the planes after they did not meet federal standards on wiring the first time. Murray asked Sturgell why these problems were not identified during an 18-month period that ended in March, when airlines were working to comply with an FAA directive on wiring. Sturgell said that he does not believe that physical inspections were done regarding that directive, indicating the agency relied on reviewing paperwork instead. “I regret and empathize with the disruption that that event caused,” Sturgell said.
Murray said afterward that the inconsistent safety oversight at FAA was the most egregious problem at the agency. She cited frustration that the same problems at FAA regarding an insufficient number of inspectors, maintenance issues and inadequate budget requests keep popping up every year. But she did not identify any legislative steps that Congress could take, indicating it was FAA’s responsibility. The agency plans to implement a two-year “cooling off” period in which former FAA officials would have limited access with agency inspectors when they take jobs with airlines. This is one attempt to address the “overly collaborative relationship” that Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel cited as a reason behind the recent revelations that FAA inspectors failed to prevent Southwest Airlines from using planes that had not been properly inspected.
Murray said she had not made up her mind whether the Senate should hold up Sturgell’s nomination this year as a sign of displeasure over the agency’s safety oversight. New Jersey Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg — a member of Murray’s subcommittee — and Robert Menendez have holds on Sturgell’s nomination. Murray also questioned the timing of FAA issuance of a record $10 million fine against Southwest only after House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar announced his committee’s investigation into the matter, as well as the subsequent crackdown on airline inspections that led to the American Airlines groundings. “Are we really supposed to think this was just a coincidence?” Murray asked Sturgell regarding the timing of the fine against Southwest. “That is my belief, yes,” he responded. “The only reason why the FAA acted is because this was going to become public,” Murray asserted, regarding the heightened FAA scrutiny that led to the American Airlines groundings. “We are trying to do the right thing,” Sturgell said.
This article appears in the April 19, 2008 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.