WASHINGTON – This week's flight cancellations by American Airlines are likely to spread to other U.S. airlines in the weeks ahead as federal regulators step up a by-the-book review of carriers' compliance with maintenance and safety orders issued in recent years.
"If we do uncover any safety issues from these audits, the carriers will have to make a business decision as to how to deal with the issue," Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Les Dorr said.
Midwest Airlines on Thursday became the latest airline to ground planes and cancel flights to re-inspect a wiring harness, the same issue that has forced American to cancel more than 2,400 flights and Alaska Airlines to cancel about 40 more in recent days.
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Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA official who ordered the audits last month after Southwest Airlines was found to have flown planes that missed inspections, faced tough questions from Congress Thursday about his responsibility for the lapses. Some of Sabatini's congressional testimony from last week, which came during a hearing that featured whistleblowers, has been labeled as "misleading and inaccurate" by House lawmakers — charges the FAA has denied.
Sabatini told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that he was accountable for the recent breakdowns, and blamed the Southwest incident on the failure of both FAA and airline employees.
Depending on how you look at it, this could be viewed as a classic bureaucratic overreaction after the agency was embarrassed by the disclosure last month that FAA inspectors were letting Southwest ignore airworthiness directives — or that the top brass, shocked at how lax the safety review system had gotten, has finally awakened and ordered a high-impact new way of doing business.
"There's always going to be extremes, just as there are in politics, and to some extent this is a political issue," said Bob Harrell of New York-based travel and aviation consulting firm Harrell Associates. "Auditors get paid to audit, get paid to find things."
Another sign of the political stakes: the Senate confirmation process for acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell, who was nominated by President Bush in October, has been put on hold. Sturgell announced last week that four U.S. airlines are being investigated for failing to comply with federal regulations, that the probe would take months to complete and could result in fines.
The first round of audits, conducted over a two-week span last month, checked 10 airworthiness directives that apply to each carrier's fleet. Under the second phase, which runs through June 30, individual inspectors will check a random sampling of 10 percent of the orders that apply to each airline's fleet. For a large carrier like American that operates many different aircraft, that could be several hundred directives, Dorr said.
Flight delays and cancellations could soon get worse, "particularly for the carriers that have older fleets," Harrell said. About 35 percent of the U.S. fleet is more than 25 years old, according to the International Air Transport Association.
FAA spokeswoman Lynn Tierney said the agency is simply doing its job.
"We are aware and sympathetic ... 100,000 people being stranded is extraordinary," Tierney said. "But the role is clear, it's a regulator's role and you have to enforce the regulations. We understand the disruption this causes, but (the airlines) had 18 months to complete the work."
Tierney is referring to the safety order issued on the Boeing Co. MD-80 aircraft that have been grounded by American, Midwest and other airlines in recent days. The FAA issued an airworthiness directive on those planes after reports of shorted wires, evidence of worn-down power cables, and fuel system reviews conducted by the manufacturer. It was effective Sept. 5, 2006, and the airlines had 18 months to comply.
Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III on Thursday repeated his findings about the FAA's inspection office responsible for Southwest Airlines having "developed an overly collaborative relationship" with the carrier.
"FAA's oversight in this case appears to allow, rather than mitigate, recurring safety violations," Scovel said.
Gregory Polek, a senior editor at Aviation International News, said American Airlines is now suffering because of that.
"American is paying for the transgressions of the (FAA) office because Congress made a public spectacle about the internal conflicts that led to the Southwest Airlines fiasco," Polek wrote in an e-mail.
Scovel's office found that the FAA fails to protect employees who report safety issues and doesn't adequately respond to problems when they are identified. He recommended immediate action be taken to fix the air carrier oversight programs.
The FAA last week announced a new reporting system designed to make it easier for inspectors to raise concerns and that it was strengthening ethics policies aimed at easing potential conflicts of interests.
The agency is also considering establishing a two-year "cooling off" period before former inspectors could work for an airline they were overseeing. That would match the time that new inspectors hired from industry must wait before they can oversee their former employer.