WASHINGTON – When an airline is in financial distress, the Federal Aviation Administration increases vigilance to ensure maintenance isn't compromised. But with two huge airlines in Chapter 11 and the FAA facing criticism for not doing enough to monitor a third, some lawmakers question whether the agency is up to the task.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said the FAA needs more money to do the job. He also said he may write legislation ordering that FAA personnel be shifted to that task.
"There have been many more people killed due to maintenance defects and lack of inspection and oversight than in all the terrorist acts combined in this country," Mica said. "We do have some airlines in deep financial trouble, and it's important we have inspections to make certain they're operating safe aircraft and that proper maintenance is adhered to."
The FAA has 3,300 aviation safety inspectors to monitor 139 airlines, 637,000 active pilots, 273,000 mechanics, 7,600 commercial aircraft, 11,000 charter aircraft and 220,000 private planes, according to an April audit by the Transportation Department's inspector general.
FAA inspectors analyze data, review paperwork and conduct spot checks of airlines' maintenance programs. Labor unrest, financial problems and rapid growth are among the things that prompt increased supervision.
Many U.S. air carriers have struggled financially since the Sept. 11 attacks. Major airlines expect to lose about $10 billion this year, according to Leo Mullin, Delta Air Lines' chief executive. And they have cut about 100,000 jobs since the attacks.
United Airlines, the second-largest U.S. airline, and US Airways, the fifth-biggest, declared bankruptcy this year. The FAA was faulted by the National Transportation Safety Board for its supervision over Alaska Airlines.
Still, FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the agency believes it has enough people to monitor maintenance at all airlines.
Greg Martin, another FAA spokesman, said the cyclical nature of the aviation business has conditioned the agency to deal with a number of troubled airlines at once.
"We've been here before so there's nothing particularly extraordinary that would leave us unprepared," Martin said.
Nonetheless, the bankruptcies have some worried.
"The FAA is stretched pretty thin," said Bill Waldock, professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. "They've had difficulty in responding to a circumstance like a bankrupt airline, where there's pressure to cut costs."
Eastern Airlines was fined $3.5 million for falsifying work records on its fleet soon after declaring bankruptcy in 1991. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chaired oversight hearings on Eastern, which no longer operates.
"The carriers say they never compromise on maintenance, but there's a downward pressure," Oberstar said.
Linda Goodrich, spokeswoman for the union representing FAA inspectors, said bankrupt airlines require much closer oversight. For example, instead of simply checking records on how often jet tires are rotated, an inspector goes to a bankrupt airline's maintenance facility and personally examines the tires.
She estimates the FAA needs 500 more inspectors and 100 more administrators to do the job right.
"We are so thin, we do minimally what we can do and depend a lot on our expertise," said Goodrich, who was an inspector for 20 years. "We should all be terribly concerned."
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said he's concerned the FAA feels pressure from Congress and the White House to hold the line on staffing.
"If they're going to do some enhanced on-the-ground surveillance they're going to have to ask for more personnel," DeFazio said.
Critics say airlines that grow quickly also present problems for the FAA, which hasn't always increased supervision as fast as an airline has added planes.
Alaska Airlines experienced a number of maintenance problems during a period of rapid expansion several years ago. Earlier this month, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed faulty maintenance and poor FAA oversight for a January 2000 crash off the California coast that killed all 88 aboard an Alaska Airlines jet.
The agency has increased inspectors since then and the airline improved its maintenance program.
Spitaliere said she doesn't know how many airlines are under heightened surveillance now. "We usually don't go into specifics," she said.
But increased oversight doesn't necessarily require more inspectors, Spitaliere said.
Bill Bozin, vice president of safety and regulatory compliance at US Airways, said he met with FAA officials the day after the airline declared bankruptcy in August. The airline, which hopes to emerge from bankruptcy early next year, quickly enhanced its internal maintenance oversight, Bozin said.
"We can't allow ourselves to have any missteps," he said. "We realize there is that potential because of the distraction factor that is there."
Hank Krakowski, United's vice president of safety, security and quality assurance, met with FAA officials almost immediately after the airline declared bankruptcy on Dec. 9 to discuss maintenance, according to Chris Brathwaite, an airline spokesman.
Pilots, often the first to notice maintenance corners being cut, haven't heard of any safety problems at United or US Airways, said John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association.