As Hearing Looms, FAA Launches Investigation of Carriers

Fri, Mar 21, 2008 — David Evans


Southwest Airlines Continues Internal Review of Maintenance

The supervision of airline safety will be the subject of a 3 April hearing in Congress and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials can expect sharp grilling from the legislators based on recent maintenance lapses at Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, as well as the system wide inspections at all airlines mandated 18 March by FAA acting Administrator Robert Sturgell.

United temporarily grounded six B747s March 20 after discovering that test equipment used at a South Korean maintenance station was faulty. The FAA ordered the groundings.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said his committee has “uncovered a pattern of regulatory abuse” throughout the airline industry. Regarding Southwest, Oberstar is concerned about more than the apparent fact that FAA inspectors allowed the airline to keep flying more than three dozen of its 500-aircraft fleet after they were slated for inspections of possible fatigue cracking in their fuselages. “What is so disturbing is that many FAA inspectors have given up reporting failures by the carriers because there is such a cozy relationship between FAA management and airline management,” Oberstar declared in a recent statement on the matter.

The FAA has proposed levying a $10 million penalty on Southwest for flying airplanes after the inspections were due, and the FAA will now be conducting inspections at all airlines of compliance with airworthiness directives (ADs). About 118 carriers will be affected by the newly announced inspections. The first stage of these inspections is to be completed by 28 March, in clear anticipation of the hearing, and all inspections are to be completed by 30 June.

Preliminary spot checks at other airlines recently uncovered compliance paperwork that was questionable or difficult to verify, hence the FAA’s move to a more comprehensive look.  It is not clear if the FAA has ordered actual inspections of maintenance performed on aircraft, or just a records check.

In an e-mail to all airlines, the FAA associate administrator for safety, Nicholas Sabatini, said the inspections of a sampling of ADs will help “validate the effectiveness” of the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS).

ATOS is the system put in place by the FAA earlier this decade to allow the airlines to do a better job of inspecting themselves. FAA inspectors would provide oversight but would do fewer inspections of actual aircraft, focusing instead on trends and shortcomings highlighted by ATOS records.

The system has been criticized by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General (DOT/IG) in 2002 for not establishing accountability to ensure “consistent ATOS field implementation.” The DOT/IG has also criticized the FAA for inadequate training of its ATOS inspectors.

On its website, the FAA describes ATOS as “a work in progress.”

According to Sabatini’s letter to top carrier officials announcing the two-phase inspection, the effort will look at 10 ADs in the first phase, assessing compliance with their requirements against ATOS and other carrier documents. The second phase will expand to examine compliance with 10% of all ADs applicable to a carrier’s aircraft.

A few dozen to more than a hundred ADs may apply to a single aircraft type. Inspecting 10 or 10% of all ADs may not have any statistical validity because of the small sample size and different samples applied by various inspectors. An FAA official explains that of the 10 ADs that must be examined for compliance by March 28, two of the ADs must include the ones applying to B737 structural fatigue, which were the subject of recent compliance controversy at Southwest, if these airplanes are operated by other carriers. Otherwise, said the FAA official, selection of the ADs to be audited is up to the individual inspector. “It will be different airline to airline,” the official said.

An aviation consultant, who verifies AD compliance on behalf of banks and finance companies, to protect the value of their asset, said there are many ways the AD handling process can break down: from receipt of AD, to engineering evaluation to task development to application of the mandated work by a qualified technician to quality assurance review to record keeping practices that document the entire process.

This expert questions the worth of looking at 10 or 10% of the ADs. “If there is not more detailed instruction from [FAA] headquarter, the inspector force can ‘whip’ that [10 ADs per carrier] off by looking at placards and other ‘easy to do’ AD items – which will tell headquarters nothing about the ‘status’ of the certificate holders [airlines],” he said.

“As for ATOS,” this official declared, “I am not aware of any kind of ‘statistical basis’ that would achieve a high level of confidence.”

A similarly skeptical view of these token AD inspections comes from Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union representing FAA safety inspectors and other officials. Brantley is critical of the FAA’s gradual shift toward greater reliance on industry cooperation to assure safety. Regarding the AD inspections, Brantley said FAA officials are “just looking to put something together that they can present at the hearing” to show that “everything is fine.”

One would hope the actual number of FAA inspectors would also be a subject of the forthcoming Congressional hearing. The inspector workforce has declined to some 2,800 personnel, a drop from well over 3,000 inspectors a few years ago. An FAA official confided that the inspector work force has diminished dramatically. ATOS notwithstanding, he said more inspections cannot be conducted by fewer personnel.

Southwest Airlines is also preparing for the forthcoming hearings. Further, it is facing a deadline of 17 April to respond to the FAA’s proposed $10 million civil penalty.

On 10 March the carrier received a certified letter from the FAA charging, among other things, that some 46 B737s had made more than 59,790 flights from June 2006 to March 2007 without the AD-required structural inspections. Other transgressions along the same vein, operating aircraft that were not in airworthy condition, prompted the FAA to announce it was “willing to accept a total of $10,200,000 in settlement of Counts 1 and 2.”

The FAA letter reads like something generated by the Internal Revenue Service; not the kind of mail sought by anybody. The FAA letter resulted from a situation last year when, according to a Southwest Airlines official, the carrier self-disclosed a maintenance oversight, missing required structural inspections, and inspected the airplanes within eight days.

According to Dallas’ KXAS-TV station, two FAA whistleblowers charged that colleagues at their own agency plotted to sidetrack safety concerns. The whistleblowers complaints were subsequently investigated by the federal Office of Special Counsel and by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

One whistleblower, Bobby Boutris, wrote in his complaint, “The message I have been getting for the last three years is not to ‘rock the boat’ and ‘go with the flow,’ no matter how serious things are.”

The other whistleblower, Douglas Peters, wrote, “I am being targeted for retaliation for being part of the investigation that revealed gross wrongdoing by FAA employees.”

They charged that an FAA manager responsible for oversight at Southwest quit his job, and the very next day got a job with the carrier. Southwest said in a statement that it had placed three of its employees on administrative leave (with pay) and that these persons are cooperating with Southwest’s own inquiry into the fiasco. Following the Office of Special Counsel investigation, the FAA fired two officials, including its chief inspector at Southwest. That inquiry also led to the FAA’s penalty letter.

Southwest is continuing its investigation into AD-related maintenance actions, and on 11 March grounded 38 airplanes for fatigue inspections. These aircraft were not on the list of airplanes contained in the FAA’s penalty letter. The inspections took about 90 minutes for each airplane. All are back in service, four of them having received minor repairs after the combination of visual and eddy current inspections.

Southwest attributed the grounding action to “an ambiguity related to required testing.”

The airline has mounted a vigorous offensive on its website touting its safety culture. Herewith, some examples of that material:

  • A statement attesting to the airline’s strong safety culture, with this explanation:

“The Airworthiness Directive referenced in the FAA Letter of Penalty involves one of the many skin inspections on our aircraft and was never a safety of flight issue. Southwest actually performed the inspection, but missed inspecting an area of .006 of the total inspection area. Southwest helped develop the program in 1999, before it became an FAA directive. Boeing relied on Southwest’s program to develop the Service Bulletin that led to the eventual Airworthiness Directive in question. Southwest has a long history of working with Boeing, consistently maintaining a leadership role in developing maintenance programs for the Boeing 737 aircraft. Southwest is the largest Boeing 737 operator in the world.”

  • A statement from Southwest CEO Gary Kelly:

“In this particular situation, we identified a gap in our documentation. We voluntarily reported that to the FAA. We worked out with the FAA how to fix that problem, and we fixed it.

“We were surprised … to get that notification (of a proposed penalty) by the FAA …. Again, our interpretation of the guidance that we got from the FAA at the time was that we were in compliance with all laws and regulations. I think the FAA has a different view of that today. That’s something that we’re investigating as well, but the important thing is that at no time were we operating in an unsafe manner, and I think our history proves that ….

“We’re disappointed, obviously, with the fine. It is unprecedented, and we think it is unfair. … [We] will be preparing our case.”

  • A statement from Gregory Feith, a former investigator in charge at the National Transportation Safety Board:

“I was requested by Southwest Airlines (SWA) to review and assess the potential safety of flight risk that could have resulted from the continued in-service operation of 46 of their Classic 737 airplanes in March 2007 as they progressively inspected a small area (under 0.6%) of the fuselage skin as required by Airworthiness Directive 2004-18-08. …

“Based on the information I have reviewed, it is apparent that on March 15, 2007, SWA initiated re-inspection of the affected airplanes to accomplish the inadvertently missed portion of the … AD ….

“In addition, it is evident from the analysis and testing data developed by Boeing that cracks up to 6 inches in the fuselage skin do not compromise the structural integrity or pose a safety of flight issue.”

  • A statement from Captain Carl Kuwitzky, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association (SWAPA):

“The cornerstone of the operational safety culture at Southwest Airlines is in the voluntary safety partnership programs between the company, its various labor groups and the FAA. In conducting FAA required inspections of our aircraft, Southwest Airlines has acted responsibly and the safety of our aircraft was at no time compromised.”

  • A statement from Boeing:

“Southwest Airlines contacted Boeing for verification of its technical opinion that the continued operation of SWA’s Classic 737s, for up to 10 days until the airplanes could be reinspected, did not pose a safety of flight issue. Based on a thorough review of many factors, including fleet history and test data, as well as other inspections and maintenance previously incorporated, Boeing concluded the 10-day compliance plan was technically valid. In Boeing’s opinion, the safety of the Southwest fleet was not compromised.”

  • In addition, Southwest maintains a blog site at which some 20+ pages of passenger comments are lodged. Herewith, a sampling:

“I am shocked to hear of this. I have always thought Southwest was one of the safest carriers and the cheapest. I will have o say I was seriously wrong and will re-evaluate my choices in the future. I will pay extra to ensure my life and safety because what’s a few extra bucks versus your life.”

“I’m wondering what other safety checks you guys have missed? The ones that come to light are often the tip of the iceberg. You say you notified the FAA – WHEN you discovered the missed checks! But of course you have to do that because things will look far worse if the FAA actually finds out themselves, however unlikely that it!

“As I understand it, these were checks related to causes of prior 737 crashes.

“I will not, repeat not, by flying your airline anytime soon.”

“This is obviously a very political act [the FAA enforcement letter] that smears and defames SWA before the public and its passengers, as the FAA is currently being criticized by Congress for not being tough enough on airlines for safety and other bad performance! So the FAA goes after the airline with the deepest pockets and imposes an unfair and unjustified fine, based on mostly nothing, it appears!”

“I have been a very loyal customer of Southwest for many years. … However, I will have to rethink this position as these weeks go by and the investigation results and hearings continue. On CNN the CEO said they completed 99% of all inspections. That leaves 1% not done. In my line of business, 1% can kill you. In the airline business, 1% can kill you.

“I applaud Southwest for disclosing the issue. I hold them accountable for allowing many more flights without the inspections once the error was found. That is a management style that puts profits over safety. It would be good to understand the technical rationale to allow the planes to fly once the errors in the maintenance process were found.

“Other folks say that the record of no fatal crashes due to maintenance speaks for itself. I say Southwest got lucky, and I have a hard time flying with luck being the safety policy. …”

“This is troubling news. I fly Southwest. I probably will continue to fly Southwest – yet it is wrong to operate a plane that is not in compliance. To be technically in compliance doesn’t suffice. If you need to lose money by taking 117 planes out of service, too bad. It is not right that you gain commercial revenue at the risk of our lives.”

“[It] appears to be the proverbial ‘letter’ versus ‘spirit’ of the law debate. Should Southwest have missed those1% areas? Of course not, but it’s not as if inadvertently missing a time limit has never happened to any airline before in the last 50 years of jet airliners. Southwest appears to have complied with the ‘spirit’ of the regulations here, and if the ‘Washington’ FAA folks have a problem with what the ‘local’ FAA people may have done, that sounds more like an internal FAA issue than a Southwest one.”

That internal FAA issue is precisely what the upcoming Congressional hearing will explore. And while the legislators are at it, they may ask, if it didn’t catch or highlight the alleged non-compliance with ADs, what good is ATOS? Inspecting a small sample of ADs is not that kind of in-depth review needed to validate the larger oversight program; it’s feel-good tokenism intended to impress legislators.

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