FAA: Four airlines being probed for safety violations

WASHINGTON — Four U.S. airlines are under investigation for possible air safety violations, but the vast majority of the country's 117 air carriers are in compliance with safety regulations, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday.

FAA officials said they were prohibited by law from identifying the four carriers pending completion of their investigation. Officials said three of the airlines were being reviewed for possible problems involving wiring in the wheel wells. A fourth hadn't submitted a plan to show how it would comply with airworthiness directives for future years.

FAA executives, who released the results of a safety audit in advance of a congressional hearing Thursday on inspection lapses involving Southwest Airlines and possibly other carriers, used the audit to defend the FAA's performance as a watchdog of air passenger safety.

"Despite what a small few imply, our system works," said acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plans to question FAA whistleblowers, Southwest officials and FAA executives. The day-long hearing will focus heavily on what committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., describes as ``a culture of coziness'' between the FAA and the airlines.

But Sturgell and other FAA officials said that the review showed that airlines are complying with 99 percent of FAA ``airworthiness directives'' reviewed by safety inspectors.

Both American Airlines and Delta Air Lines recently canceled hundreds of flights to conduct wheel well inspections for wiring problems as a result of FAA safety checks. The checks were ordered as an outgrowth of a case involving Southwest, which the FAA is seeking to fine $10.2 million for continuing to fly planes instead of allowing them to be inspected for cracks.

Sturgell touted the penalty — the biggest the FAA has ever levied — as an illustration of his agency's aggressiveness, referring to ``10.2 million reasons why the critics are simply wrong.''

Spokesmen at Fort Worth-based American and Atlanta-based Delta said they didn't know if their airlines were among the four being scrutinized.

``I can't tell you who they're auditing,'' said American spokesman Tim Wagner.

``We have not been notified that we are subject to an investigation,'' said Betsy Talton of Delta.

The FAA officials also announced a series of new measures aimed at improving airline safety, including toughening requirements for airlines to disclose problems and work with FAA officials to correct them.

Another measure would give employees greater protection to report problems if they don't feel they're getting the proper response from supervisors. The Southwest case was instigated by two FAA employees who sought protection under government whistleblower statutes.

Twenty witnesses, including the FAA whistleblowers and Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher, are scheduled to testify at the hearing.

The officials said they were releasing the first phase of the audit and would continue with a more extensive audit, which will be completed in June.