Travel Tips

Airline Safety Starts With Maintenance

Locations in this article:  Amsterdam, Netherlands

US Capitol Building In the wake of Thursday’s Congressional hearings, Peter Greenberg blogs about the grounding of hundreds of aircraft after the Southwest Airlines inspection scandal, and what passengers need to know before they board.

The recent developments at Southwest Airlines and the resulting FAA fine of $10.2 million resulted in Congressional hearings. Explosive testimony from FAA whistleblowers spotlighted how many FAA inspectors must battle not only airlines but their own agency as well.

In the wake of this continuing story, what do passengers need to know about the planes they’re about to board?

First, you need to understand that on every plane is something called an MEL. It stands for a minimum equipment list. If anything on that list isn’t working, it’s considered a NO GO item and the plane won’t push back from the gate until it’s fixed.

From a safety standpoint this is good. From a passenger comfort standpoint, it creates other problems.

A non-working lavatory? NOT a no-go item. Reading lights not operating? Not on the MEL. Same for cleanliness, even the temperature and atmospheric conditions of the cabin.

But a much more important issue is the overall maintenance procedures, and the enforcement and application of those procedures by the FAA.

Air Traffic Control Woman WWIIBy all reasonable standards and measures, the FAA is understaffed at almost every level. There clearly aren’t enough inspectors to physically check the maintenance work done by U.S. airlines. Just the idea that the FAA announced in the past week “spot checks” is alarming. Shouldn’t they be doing regular checks?

The question that needs to be answered—perhaps in a sweeping audit of FAA maintenance supervision procedures—is whether the FAA is inspecting the paperwork an airline supplies to claim it has performed the appropriate maintenance or repairs, or are the FAA inspectors actually physically looking at the work?

There’s another issue as well. It’s called the AD, or airworthiness directive. It’s a notice sent to airlines that says the FAA has identified a safety problem on a particular aircraft type—as in the recent wiring bundle issue on MD-80 aircraft—and that it needs to be fixed. But here’s the problem. There are different types of notices.

  • A service bulletin just points out a problem and asks the airline to fix it, with no set deadline.
  • A modified AD points out a problem and gives the airlines a very loose deadline to fix it. In the case of the wiring bundles, the AD gave the operating airlines about two years to fix it.
  • Then there’s the more serious AD—the one that says the problem is so serious that the aircraft cannot fly until it’s fixed.

Historically, the FAA has been reluctant to pick the third choice because of the economic impact it would have on airlines. And historically, that failure to fix a problem immediately has led to further accidents and fatalities.

What we witnessed this week, in the wake of the Southwest Airlines scandal and the resulting proposed FAA fine, is that a number of airlines—American, Delta, and most recently United—suddenly realized that there were existing modified ADs pending and they had not done the work and the deadlines were approaching. Worried about their exposure in the wake of the Southwest incident, the airlines voluntarily grounded hundreds of planes.

Think SafetyWhat needs to be done, even in tough economic times, is to finally come to grips with the notion that safety must always trump economic impact. The FAA needs more trained inspectors, and last but not least is the brave new world of outsourcing.

Two large U.S. airlines, Jet Blue and US Air, routinely send their airplanes out of the country—to El Salvador—for heavy maintenance. The El Salvador facilities have an excellent reputation for good maintenance work, but it once again begs the question of oversight: who is inspecting the work, where are they inspecting it, and when are they inspecting it? Or, as some are suggesting, the FAA inspectors are only looking at the paperwork, and not the work itself.

Having said all of this, in fairness, we need to point out that the U.S. is currently experiencing a phenomenally good air safety record.

There has not been a fatal crash by a major carrier in this country since November 11, 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus headed for the Dominican Republic crashed after takeoff from JFK. That’s nearly six-and-a-half years without a crash!

It’s a safety record we can’t improve. The biggest issue: With an understaffed FAA, and with hard economic times coupled with an aging aircraft fleet that by definition requires more maintenance, how do we MAINTAIN that safety record? Right now, I don’t know that we can.

By Peter Greenberg

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Previous Coverage of FAA “Inspection-Gate”: