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Report: FAA Hasn’t Done Enough to Ensure Safety Concerns Are Investigated

July 2, 2008

By Dave Michaels, The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 2–WASHINGTON — Federal aviation regulators haven’t done enough to ensure that its inspectors’ allegations of safety problems will be fully investigated, even after this year’s highly publicized failings at Southwest Airlines, according to a new government report.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general recommended Wednesday that regulators establish an independent watchdog within the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate inspectors’ safety concerns.

In an audit released Wednesday, the inspector general urged that FAA do more than set up a system that allows inspectors to directly report safety concerns to top officials.

That system “merely adds one more process to an already existing internal reporting process … that is unequivocally ineffective and possibly even biased against resolving root causes of serious safety lapses,” according to the inspector general’s report.

The inspector general began its review after congressional investigators, acting on information supplied by Dallas-area whistle-blowers, identified serious safety lapses in the maintenance program of Southwest Airlines.

The whistle-blowers reported that they tried to raise concerns about Southwest’s maintenance program, but were blocked from further investigating by Dallas-area FAA managers who had become too cozy with the carrier, according to federal investigators.

The FAA fined the Dallas carrier $10.2 million in March for violations that included flying jets that should have been grounded for crucial safety inspections. Five jets were found to have fuselage cracks that should have been repaired much earlier.

The FAA later removed several of its own officials who failed to enforce the agency’s regulations. One of the managers has since retired, and two more remain on paid leave.

The FAA announced other changes after fining Southwest, including a revolving-door policy that prohibits FAA inspectors from going to work for an airline they previously regulated.

The inspector general further recommended that FAA rotate inspectors between assignments, to guard against regulators becoming too close with airlines. The FAA didn’t agree with that recommendation, according to the inspector general’s report.

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