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FAA Audits Deal New Blow to Airline Industry, Travelers

April 10, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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American Airlines canceled some 900 flights Thursday for a third day of deep-reaching schedule changes due to a new round of tighter FAA safety inspections. An airline safety expert and an FAA representative examine the impact on the airline industry and on passengers.
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, a third straight day of major flight cancellations and big headaches at the nation’s airports. NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago begins.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: Paul Brutout was one of the thousands of unhappy American Airlines passengers this morning. He was back in line at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport hoping to get on the flight after yesterday’s cancellations.

PAUL BRUTOUT, Passenger: It messed up my vacation. I’m going to Texas turkey hunting, and I have people waiting down there for me. And when you book in January, you know, you kind of hope that this never happens. And it probably should have never happened to begin with, had they followed all the proper procedures, and I think the American public is paying the price for it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Yvette Dradner wasn’t happy, either.

YVETTE DRADNER, Passenger: We’re going to New York because my daughter-in-law just had a baby. And I said I would be there to help her. We’re staying the week, and it was just a hassle.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: More than 150,000 travelers have had their plans disrupted over the last three days as 2,500 flights have been scrubbed.

Things have calmed down a little bit at Chicago’s O’Hare airport today. The long lines have pretty much disappeared. Yesterday, 10,000 people were affected by cancellations, though 123 flights will be cancelled today. But at least most people were notified that their flight would be canceled before they got to the airport.

The reason for the epic delays: American has grounded its MD-80 jets, the workhorse of its fleet, for safety inspections. Specifically, American mechanics are examining the wiring in the wheel wells of the MD-80 jet.

The cords holding the wire bundles must be at least one inch apart. And if they aren’t, there’s a danger of fire or losing auxiliary hydraulic power.

American was cited for a violation in a recent FAA audit. The same check was done in March, and 500 flights were cancelled.

American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said the airline thought it had solved the problem then, but the FAA said it had not been fixed properly.

MARY FRANCES FAGAN, American Airlines: We believed we were in compliance when the FAA inspectors came on board and said, “No, you’re not in compliance.” We said, “OK, we will become in compliance.”

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This is the latest in a series of problems that have spotlighted oversight issues at the FAA and the airlines. A hearing last week focused on lax safety inspections by Southwest Airlines, with the complicity of some FAA inspectors.

Earlier this month, United, Delta and Northwest all had to ground parts of their fleets.

The cancellations have raised safety concerns for many passengers, including nervous flyers like Simon Cooper, the leader of a seven-piece English punk rock band. He was stranded yesterday at O’Hare.

SIMON COOPER, Musician: I never feel safe flying.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And what’s this done to that feeling?

SIMON COOPER: It’s made it worse, I would say, yes, because now there’s a slight suspicion of what is wrong with these planes. And I mean, I’m fairly aware that all the airlines keep what’s wrong with their planes quiet.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: American’s major hub, Dallas-Fort Worth, has seen the highest number of cancellations and tempers were worn there, too.

PASSENGER: My Latin temper is about up to my nose by now.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At Washington’s Reagan Airport, Eric Sizemore, a librarian from Champaign, Illinois, was trying to leave. He said there was little information for already-weary travelers.

ERIC SIZEMORE, Passenger: There’s no signs to tell you where to go and what to do, I mean, on the Web, on the phone, even here. The people in line are getting a little heated.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: American hopes that all MD-80 repairs and FAA inspections will be finished in the next four days. And they say, by next week, flight schedules should be back on track.

Passengers' safety concerns

Tom Brantley
Professional Aviation Safety Specialists
It wasn't until the last couple of days that an inspector was able to take a look at it and tell the airline that, in fact, they were not in compliance. And that's when they had to take the actions they did.

MARGARET WARNER: And Jeffrey Brown has more on this story.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a closer look at safety and other questions at hand and what travelers need to know first with Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, a union for FAA inspectors.

Well, Mr. Brantley, I think what most people want to know right away: Is there a real safety threat here? Should passengers be worried?

TOM BRANTLEY, President, Professional Aviation Safety Specialists: Well, Jeff, I think the real problem is we don't know. Because the FAA is not verifying that work is being accomplished, as they should, there are many things that could be going undetected that we're not aware of. So, in my mind, it's even worse than knowing it's unsafe, because not knowing means you don't have a choice to make.

JEFFREY BROWN: What accounts for what's going on right now with American and a few other airlines right now? Is that a direct safety threat, or is that part of this inspection, or is that part of the "we don't know"?

TOM BRANTLEY: It's part of the "we don't know." The fact that American grounded so many flights the last couple of days is a reflection of the rules. When you are in violation of an airworthiness directive, you're required to stop until you come into compliance, so that part was unavoidable.

I think if the agency had been providing the appropriate oversight earlier, this could have been detected in a way that was less explosive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is this different from the case of a week or so ago with Southwest, where there were some inspectors, members of your union, who spoke before Congress and said they had been stymied from talking about problems?

TOM BRANTLEY: Yes, this is a little different. It actually originated from an action that occurred a couple of weeks ago when American first disclosed that they thought they were in violation of this directive.

And then they thought they had come into compliance with it, and they notified the agency, and they accepted that. At the time, there was no verification.

It wasn't until the last couple of days that an inspector was able to take a look at it and tell the airline that, in fact, they were not in compliance. And that's when they had to take the actions they did.

Determining accountability

Tom Brantley
Professional Aviation Safety Specialists
Congress changed that about a decade ago. And the only mission that the FAA has today is to ensure the safety of the industry. And I think they've lost sight of that, and they've never given up the promotion part.

JEFFREY BROWN: So who is to blame? I mean, is this a systemic problem? You look at the airlines, you look at the FAA, what's going on?

TOM BRANTLEY: I think it is a systemic problem, and we're seeing it across the board now, so obviously it's not isolated to one airline. And it's a result, I believe, of the FAA going too far in trying to increase the partnership, develop a better relationship with the airlines. I think that's a good idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain that. Too far in developing a partnership? I mean, that's part of their role, in a sense, isn't it?

TOM BRANTLEY: Well, you know, one of the phrases I heard today that stuck with me is that we don't want to go back to there being a wall between the industry and the agency. And I think that's true. But while there shouldn't be a wall, there should be a fence.

At the end of the day, the FAA has oversight responsibility. And while they want to reach out to the industry, they don't want to go so far that, when there's a violation or a problem, they're not enforcing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you're suggesting they've become too cozy, is one word I've heard? Is that the word you would use?

TOM BRANTLEY: Complacent. They've gotten to a point where the agency, even if they know there's a problem, they will bend over backward to avoid it being an actual problem.

So they will allow the airline to disclose it themselves, even if the agency detects a problem. And they'll go out of their way to try to make sure there's no impact, no financial impact to the airline, which I think is, as you said, too cozy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, is there a conflict in the role of this agency which affects your inspectors, in the sense that, on the one hand, safety is part of it, but also making sure that the airlines run, and they run on time, and that the business stays effective?

TOM BRANTLEY: Well, there used to be. In fact, by law, the FAA used to have a dual mandate of promoting the industry as well as regulating it. And that was changed.

Congress changed that about a decade ago. And the only mission that the FAA has today is to ensure the safety of the industry. And I think they've lost sight of that, and they've never given up the promotion part.

JEFFREY BROWN: But does this new round of inspections that is going on right now, and to which American is reacting, is that then a good idea? Are they now being more forceful, in your view?

TOM BRANTLEY: I don't think they're being more forceful. I think they're now starting to do what should have been done previously.

And one of the things to keep in mind under this special emphasis review the FAA has been doing the last couple of weeks, the first phase of that, which ended last week just ahead of the House hearing, the agency specifically instructed inspectors, unless the aircraft is already out of service for maintenance, don't worry about a physical inspection. Just review the data that you get from the airlines, which is exactly what was going on before.

So the fact that problems were not found really isn't surprising. I think we'll start to see problems found as we get into physical verification of whether the work is being accomplished.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you, therefore, expect more disruptions in the months ahead with other airlines?

TOM BRANTLEY: I think that's a very real possibility from now through the end of this review. And June, I believe, is the deadline. So I do think we'll see that over the next several months.

JEFFREY BROWN: And air-flying consumers will face that?

TOM BRANTLEY: Unfortunately, they're going to bear the brunt.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Tom Brantley, thank you very much.

TOM BRANTLEY: Sure. Thank you, Jeff.

FAA audit finds high compliance

Robert Sturgell
Federal Aviation Administration
So this particular AD is all about preventing wiring from chafing, from becoming a potential ignition source, which would turn into some type of fire. So there's some safety issues here, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now a response from the Federal Aviation Administration. Robert Sturgell is the acting administrator for the FAA.

Welcome to you.

ROBERT STURGELL, Federal Aviation Administration: Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Same first question is, how real is the safety threat here? Should people be worried?

ROBERT STURGELL: Well, we currently have the safest system in the world. If you look at the data over the last decade, we have continuously improved the safety of this system. So I'm very confident in saying that the system today is safer than it's ever been.

JEFFREY BROWN: But so why, then, what's going on now?

ROBERT STURGELL: Well, we are constantly trying to improve the system. So this all started with an incident with Southwest Airlines, where there was a twofold breakdown in the system, frankly. The FAA had a share in that, as well as Southwest Airlines.

And I regret that that happened, and I'm not going to make any excuses for the FAA. We're going to correct that situation and move on.

But as a result of that, we wanted to take a snapshot of the system as a whole and just to validate what we believe the state of safety in this system is today.

And our first part of the audit that's been happening over the last several weeks showed about a 99 percent compliance rate, so not perfect, because we know the system is not perfect, but very, very close.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, again, the wiring problem that we're talking about, the specific problem that we're talking about now, is that a direct safety problem that people should be worried about flying in those planes? Or is this falling to a more generic, regular inspection that you'd like them to look at and take care of?

ROBERT STURGELL: Well, airworthiness directives are probably some of the most important regulations we issue. It's all about safety requirements.

And this AD in particular is the result of many years of learning about wiring, as well as explosions with fuel, hydraulic systems, and things like that.

So this particular AD is all about preventing wiring from chafing, from becoming a potential ignition source, which would turn into some type of fire. So there's some safety issues here, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you heard Mr. Brantley talking about what he sees as the larger issue, which he describes -- he used the word "complacency" by the FAA, that you have become too close to the airlines that you regulate. What's your response?

ROBERT STURGELL: Well, I've been a pilot for many, many years. And I can tell you, when I was flying commercial airplanes, there was nothing cozy about a check ride from an FAA inspector or a designated check airman. Nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. But there was the Southwest case, which you just a few minutes ago said there was a letdown on the part of the FAA in a case like that. So has something changed in the last few years?

ROBERT STURGELL: Well, there was a breakdown, and it was a breakdown on the part of humans in the system not doing the right thing. You know, we count on our inspectors to do the right thing.

And the vast, vast majority of them do that, and they do a great, great job for us, day in and day out. In this particular case, there were several that did not.

Prospects for further inspections

Robert Sturgell
Federal Aviation Administration
I suspect that we'll see a similar compliance rate, you know, very, very high, which will confirm for us the work that we've been doing and the safety of the system, not that we could ever be complacent, because we can't.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see a conflict in your mandate in terms of the safety on the one hand and having to help, support and prop up, if necessary, the efficiency and the effectiveness of these airlines as business organizations?

ROBERT STURGELL: The mission of the FAA is to maintain and operate a safe and efficient system. Congress eliminated the promotion aspect of the FAA's mission many, many years ago.

So our focus right now on the regulatory side is all about the safety of the system. And on the air traffic side, because we do operate the largest air traffic system in the world, is about both safety and efficiency.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know Mr. Oberstar, Congressman Oberstar raised the question or concern about who the FAA sees as who it's responsible to. Are you responsible to the airlines or to passengers?

ROBERT STURGELL: Well, our customers are first and foremost the taxpayer and the flying public. Make no question about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what happens next? This round of inspections under which American is now grounding many of its planes, I understand, goes through June 30th. So do you expect more disruptions from other airlines?

ROBERT STURGELL: Right now, we're planning to continue this through June 30th. We're going to look at about 10 percent of the ADs in the system. The first couple of weeks we did this, we analyzed almost 4,000 ADs, and we physically inspected about 200 airplanes. And, like I said, we came up with about a 99 percent compliance rate.

This time around, we're going back to some of those ADs where we had issues the first time around, which is what we are doing at American right now. We'll be looking at many, many other ADs in the future.

I suspect that we'll see a similar compliance rate, you know, very, very high, which will confirm for us the work that we've been doing and the safety of the system, not that we could ever be complacent, because we can't.

I can't predict whether there will be any more disruptions. If you look at what has happened to date, it has been disruptions related to this particular AD, which came into effect only as of March 5th and which, again, is probably our first major AD on these wiring issues because of what we have learned from past accidents, which is an important point.

We are becoming an agency that is looking at things proactively and addressing safety issues before the accident. In the past, we waited for an accident, went out and find out what happened, and tried to fix it. Today, with the data analysis we're doing, the physical inspections, it's a much more proactive system safety approach.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Robert Sturgell, thank you very much.

ROBERT STURGELL: Thank you.