WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration is "unambiguously committed" to its core mission of airline safety, but widely differing practices at FAA field offices across the country raise the potential for errors and confused decision-making, according to an independent review of the agency released Wednesday.
The blue-ribbon Independent Review Team released its findings from a 120-day inquiry into the FAA's safety enforcement following alleged safety lapses involving Southwest Airlines and the grounding of hundreds of American Airlines flights for FAA-mandated inspections.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who requested the review, ordered the FAA to implement the panel's 13 recommendations, including new safeguards to prevent FAA personnel from developing "overly cozy" relationships with the airlines they regulate.
Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell said the report "validates the approaches we've already taken" in fixing problems within the agency. The recommendations, he said, will enable the FAA to make further "changes and course corrections."
The five-member panel looked extensively at the Southwest Airlines case and the subsequent grounding of the American Airlines flights, saying the timing of the events constituted a "perfect storm" that raised serious questions about the FAA's enforcement policies.
But the review team said its task was to be "more forward-looking and prescriptive than backward-looking and investigative," with an eye toward improving FAA procedures to prevent a recurrence of past problems.
The panel calls for more rigorous oversight of the FAA's voluntary disclosure program, under which airlines can avoid legal penalties if they discover a safety problem and voluntarily report it to the FAA. Critics say that FAA officials who are too chummy with the industry allow airlines to use the voluntary disclosure program to escape penalties without fixing the underlying problem.
While the panel unearthed no substantially new disclosures, it retraced congressional investigations into allegations that Southwest, "with FAA complicity", had allowed 117 of its planes to fly in violation of regulations.
"After the fact, no one disputes that the FAA office overseeing Southwest Airlines was dysfunctional, and had been for some years," the review team said in its 71-page report.
The grounding of American's MD-80 fleet came only days after the April congressional hearing into Southwest, leading "many to suggest that the FAA overreacted, and that the disruption to American's schedule unnecessary."
"First the agency was broadly accused and roundly condemned for having slipped into excessively cozy relationships with industry," the report said. "Then, within days, it was accused of acting in an unusually harsh and legalistic manner, causing severe disruption and economic damage."
American canceled 3,100 flights, stranding or inconveniencing more than 250,000 passengers, to conduct airworthiness inspections when it faced imminent enforcement action by the FAA. The agency had ordered a nationwide audit of airworthiness standards in response to the outcry over its handling of Southwest.
"Virtually all the airlines officials we interviewed and many within the FAA believe the agency's actions represented a substantial departure from business as usual, and that the agency used an uncommonly literal interpretation of the (airworthiness directive), foreclosing any possibility of a compliance resolution that might have avoided the groundings," the report said.
"It strikes us as obviously regrettable that this issue could not have been worked out earlier," the review panel said.
The team began its work on May 1, conducting hundreds of interviews with FAA executives, managers and front-line inspectors, including whistleblowers who exposed the problems at Southwest. Leaders of trade groups, industry organizations, aviation-related labor unions and congressional committee chairmen who oversee the FAA also were interviewed.