WASHINGTON — Outrage over mass cancellations of American Airlines flights spilled into Congress on Thursday as lawmakers blamed regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration for indirectly contributing to the hardships shouldered by thousands of stranded travelers.
Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for safety, endured relentless questions by members of a Senate subcommittee on aviation, who took turns denouncing "systematic" regulatory failures by the FAA. Several suggested that the cancellations may not have been necessary if the agency had been tougher in the past.
In the past three days, American Airlines has grounded nearly 2,500 flights to repair wiring bundles in the wheel wells of its MD-80 fleet. The repairs were ordered after the FAA toughened its oversight of commercial airlines following allegations that FAA officials in Texas allowed Dallas-based Southwest Airlines to fly potentially unsafe airplanes that were overdue for inspections.
"I don't think there is any question that the FAA has been lax in enforcing safety regulations," Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said in a telephone interview.
A congressional inquiry that evolved from allegations by FAA whistle-blowers, he said, has prompted FAA regulators "to kick it into higher gear, and the airlines are beginning to dot the I's and cross the T's."
"They could have been doing these inspections over a longer period of time," avoiding the need for the abrupt mass cancellation of flights, Costello said.
The FAA announced last week that four airlines, which haven't been identified by the agency, are under investigation for possible safety violations and could face fines. Southwest has been slapped with a proposed $10.2 million penalty for the inspection lapses.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate subcommittee, called the cancellations an economic catastrophe and an "embarrassment to the nation" that has resulted in "a volcanic disruption" of air travel. He also suggested that heads should roll at the FAA, saying that "sometimes you've got to fire people to make a point."
The political backlash has clouded the prospects for Senate confirmation of Robert Sturgell as FAA administrator. Sturgell is now the agency's acting administrator.
Rockefeller scolded Sabatini for the agency's regulatory failings, at one point telling the official, "I'm not satisfied with your answer." Sabatini bristled at Rockefeller's assertion that he and other top FAA officials weren't stepping up to their responsibilities.
"I want you to know I take what has happened very seriously," Sabatini said. "I do hold myself accountable."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the senior Republican on the subcommittee, said the flights are being canceled "out of an abundance of caution." But she called on airline officials "to do everything in their power to help the passengers who have been stranded."
The Department of Transportation's inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel, presented subcommittee members with a previously released report that said that problems unearthed by the Southwest case "underscore system-wide weaknesses in FAA's oversight" of air carriers. The FAA's regional office developed "an overly collaborative relationship" with Southwest that led to the inspection lapses, Scovel said.
"It's clear that passenger safety was put at risk," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. "Clearly this is a crisis."
The head of the union that represents 11,000 aviation safety specialists in the FAA and Department of Defense said the FAA is "relying more and more on the airlines to regulate themselves" because of a shortage of personnel.
"It is time for the FAA to once again make safety its priority," said Tom Brantley, national president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists.