Airlines can't hire ex-FAA inspectors for 2 years

Federal Aviation Administration safety inspectors will be barred for two years after leaving the agency from going to work for an airline they oversaw under a rule issued Friday that's intended to prevent ethics abuses

The rule responds to concerns raised in 2008 by Congress and the Transportation Department's inspector general that managers in the safety office that oversees the Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. allowed planes to make nearly 60,000 flights without required safety inspections for possible cracks in fuselages, the FAA said in a statement.

An investigation found that Southwest had hired a former FAA inspector who had a close relationship with managers in the safety office where he formerly worked.

The FAA initially proposed fining Southwest $10.5 million, but later reached an agreement with the airline on a $7.5 million fine in the case.

Separately, the FAA also proposed new rules Friday intended to prevent accidents caused by ice buildups on the surfaces of smaller airliners usually flown by regional airlines.

The rules require that planes weighing less than 60,000 pounds be equipped with sensors that detect ice and warn pilots, or that airlines tell their pilots to automatically switch on anti-icing equipment sooner than previously required.

The rules were prompted by a series of incidents involving ice buildup, most notably the 1994 crash of an American Eagle ATR-72 turboprop plane near Roselawn, Ind. All 68 people onboard were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been urging the FAA for more than a decade to issue regulations to address icing problems. But a safety board spokeswoman said Friday that the agency didn't go far enough in its new rules.

The rules should have applied to planes weighing more than 60,000 pounds, not just smaller airliners, because the larger planes are more likely to benefit from the added safety the rules are designed to provide, board spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said.

The rules apply only to scheduled airlines, Nantel noted. But the problem of ice buildup affects similar planes in private use or used in commercial operations other than airline service, she noted.

"We know the difficulties associated with observing ice accretions are applicable to any airframe therefore the rule should be applied to all," she said.