WASHINGTON — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration faced withering criticism from lawmakers on Thursday for massive flight cancellations that stranded hundreds of thousands of passengers last week while airlines scrambled to make repairs that the FAA ordered.
Robert A. Sturgell, the FAA's acting administrator, apologized for the stress caused by the cancellations but said they were necessary to enforce airlines safety standards.
"It's my job to ensure that (passengers) are safe in the air, and that's what our agency did," Sturgell told members of a Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation.
But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the subcommittee, questioned the need for the simultaneous cancellations, which came after inspection lapses involving regional FAA officials and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.
"We need an FAA that actually fixes problems as they are found rather than one that rushes into a public relations campaign to assure everyone that there isn't a problem," Murray told Sturgell.
Murray assailed the agency for "inconsistent and erratic" performance on a broad range of fronts despite past assurances from FAA officials that the agency is working toward improvement. She said that the agency needs changes "from the top down" to correct problems plaguing the nation's aviation system.
It was the third congressional hearing since allegations first surfaced from FAA whistleblowers that regional FAA officials in Texas permitted Southwest to fly potentially unsafe planes that should have been inspected for fuselage cracks. The FAA levied a $10.2 million penalty against Southwest and followed up with toughened oversight that forced American to take MD-80 airliners out of service to make required fixes on wheel well wiring bundles.
Sturgell told lawmakers that "critics of the FAA rightfully hold us accountable for safety lapses, as in the case of Southwest Airlines. But now it seems critics berate us for doing the job, as in the case of American's MD-80s."
But Murray and other committee Democrats expressed impatience with the FAA, lecturing Sturgell for what they said was a long record of broken promises to correct safety enforcement problems.
President Bush has nominated Sturgell to become the FAA director through the remaining nine months of the administration, but his promotion has been blocked in the Senate.
Calvin Scovel, the inspector general for the Department of Transportation, who also testified in the previous hearings, told committee members that the Southwest disclosures have had a "cascading effect throughout the industry" and "are symptomatic of much deeper problems" in the FAA's oversight of airline safety.
Scovel told committee members that the agency still hasn't fully implemented recommendations by his office after a 2005 finding that inspectors didn't complete 26 percent of planned inspections under the FAA's air transportation oversight system.
"Well, you can understand why the flying public is frustrated here," Murray told the FAA chief. "Mr. Sturgell, it's your job to make sure that everybody who gets on an airplane knows they're flying a safe flight."
Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, the senior Republican on the panel, said he shared some of Murray's concerns but commended Sturgell for his leadership and reaffirmed support for his nomination. Sturgell and the FAA, he said, deserve "a huge thank you" from the flying public for one of the safest periods in aviation history.
Sturgell appeared before the committee to urge support for the agency's $14.6 billion budget request for fiscal 2009, which starts in October. Some 67 percent of the budget, he said, deals with safety.