FAA's rigid rules that have grounded American Airlines have nothing to do with safety

From Marketplace Radio

American Airlines became the latest Tuesday to cancel flights to inspect wiring so it complies with FAA regulations -- not for safety issues. Airlines are losing money from those canceled flights.

From the WSJ:

The Federal Aviation Administration's antiquated and politicized priorities were on full display yesterday as regulators bullied American Airlines into scrapping more than a thousand flights, or nearly half of the airline's daily schedule.

By all accounts the disruptions, which could continue through today and already have affected tens of thousands of passengers, have nothing to do with flight safety. Instead, the issue is American's compliance with technical federal rules regarding wiring on its MD-80 jets. As a spokesman for the company put it, "These inspections – based on Federal Aviation Administration audits – are related to detailed, technical compliance issues and not safety-of-flight issues."

Last month, the FAA fined Southwest $10.2 million for flying planes that missed inspections, and it understandably got the attention of politicians and other carriers. But it's worth keeping in mind that the airline industry is largely self-regulating, a system that works because airlines have every incentive to be safe. The economic costs of an accident have been known to put airlines out of business. It's no wonder that maintenance-related commercial plane crashes in the U.S. are almost unheard of.

"The impression in the press is that the airlines aren't meeting high FAA standards," says Clifford Winston, who follows the industry at the Brookings Institution. "But that's ridiculous. It's the airlines who teach the FAA about these aircraft and what has to be done to maintain them." . . .

UPDATE: Here is the pressure from the Congress on the FAA to regulate:

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Federal Aviation Administration continued to take a drubbing from lawmakers over alleged lapses in its oversight of airline maintenance practices.

"The FAA is an agency that's spiraling downward and approaching the losing of the confidence of the American people," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on aviation operations, said during a hearing on FAA oversight practices.

Rockefeller and other lawmakers said they were concerned over revelations from whistle-blowing FAA inspectors that a supervisor improperly allowed Southwest Airlines to operate planes in need of important safety checks last year. The supervisor, who worked in the FAA's Dallas office, which oversees Southwest, has been transferred to other duties, as has a top official in the agency's Washington headquarters. Lawmakers said the incident proved that the FAA was too cozy with the airlines.

But it wasn't really a safety problem:

However, as part of a second audit of the airlines, FAA inspectors recently found that 15 of 19 MD-80s did not meet the wiring requirements. The MD-80 was built by McDonnell Douglas, which later merged with Boeing.

Inspectors found slack wires, clamps in the wrong position, insulation that was too thick and ties that were spread too far apart, the airline has said.

The FAA then denied American's request to space out inspections and repairs over several days while continuing to operate the fleet.

Airline industry representatives have expressed surprise at the FAA's stance toward American. In the past, they said, the agency would probably have allowed the carrier to make the fixes over a period of days or weeks. They noted that the 2006 directive on the MD-80 wiring gave airlines 18 months to comply. That means that regulators, while concerned about the wiring, didn't believe that making the changes was a pressing safety matter.

"I think it would be fair to say the FAA is stepping up surveillance," Arpey said at a news conference.

Safety experts said other carriers should be conducting in-depth reviews of their records and planes to ensure they do not suffer the same problems as American when FAA inspectors begin poking around.

"The airlines are all in this business to make money, and certainly they have gotten the message now that they need to clean up their act," said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "If they tend to those problems and adhere to the regulations, hopefully this is just a limited amount of turbulence. . . . I think you will see the airlines pay attention."

Bottom line:

American Airlines canceled another 595 flights today

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Blogger jonathan said...

the southwest fines included failure to check for fuselage cracks. an older, related WSJ article reveals that: 1) when they were forced to inspect, some cracks were found in some planes, 2) top-level maintenance had kept the planes in the air anyways, 3) HRTC is hearing testimony from a southwest exec, 4) the FAA admitted that their own managers lacked accountability, and even fired a couple.

of course, since the FAA is the only game in town, this won't be the last time -- until we privatize the air, says i.

4/10/2008 11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wiring improperly secured gets rubbed raw from vibration during normal air flight operations. It is an error to say these are not safety issues. Once the wiring is exposed, it can short out and cause critical systems to malfunction or even fail, which can create a danger to flight operations of the airplane.

4/12/2008 5:20 PM  

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