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DOT Slams FAA’s Oversight of American Airlines

As previously reported, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG) has been examining the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of American Airlines. Well, that report is now available and the results pretty much match the expectations:

OIG reported that FAA’s oversight lacked the rigor needed to identify the types of issues identified in the allegations [that the overall aircraft operational reliability had decreased at this airline], at least 4 of which were found to be valid.  Specifically, FAA failed to assess systems for monitoring air carrier maintenance programs, identify root causes of maintenance deferrals, ensure properly trained mechanics performed certain required inspections, and ensure prompt responses to safety recommendations and service bulletins.  In addition, FAA’s internal reviews of the allegations were not comprehensive.  As a result, FAA missed opportunities to identify potential maintenance issues and put corrective actions in place.

The Dallas Morning News offers a bit more detail and perspective. David Michaels writes that “For two years, FAA inspectors didn’t perform required oversight of American’s key system for identifying maintenance deficiencies that could cause accidents…. A separate investigation last year in response to an engine fire aboard an American flight in 2007 said ‘repeated maintenance discrepancies’ weren’t detected by that system.”

In addition, reports Michaels, “The FAA also missed American’s failure to respond to a manufacturer’s service bulletin from 2006 that alerted carriers to a problem with windshield heating systems on the Boeing 757 aircraft. In January 2008, an American jet made an emergency landing after the inner pane of its windshield shattered, blocking the visibility for pilots.”

Michaels also reports that the same allegations investigated by the OIG were also sent to the FAA. “But,” Michaels writes, “[the FAA] reached ‘faulty conclusions’ because their review was too narrow and, in the case of one team, ‘performed hastily over one weekend.'”

In short, FAA oversight was woefully inadequate, bordering on negligent. It failed to identify, assess, and ensure the correction of numerous maintenance and safety issues, and when notified of these failures, conducted a rushed, superficial internal investigation. In its report, the OIG notes that while “American has a history of noncompliance [with required inspection procedure] … a lack of adequate FAA oversight is a critical thread.”

News like this is difficult to process. To think that an agency created for the express purpose of supervising an industry would fail at perhaps the most crucial aspect of its responsibility is both shocking and disheartening. And as the OIG correctly points out, the investigation “raises significant concerns about potential maintenance weaknesses going uncorrected—not just at American but at other air carriers.”

Readers, what do you think about the OIG’s investigation? Will this make you think twice about flying with American or, dare I ask, at all?

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