Friday, April 4, 2008

Frightful scandal: FAA dereliction and airline negligence

    With the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the industry was thrown open to largely unregulated competition and the beginning of the era of low-expectation passenger comfort and endless airline financial crises.
    Dozens of start-up airlines (or upstarts, as they’re called in the industry) operating on high hopes and shoestring funding came and went with cheap fares, cramped seating, no meals and unreliable schedules.  Resilient travelers tolerated the lost quality, the delays, the canceled flights and, lately, the hassles of security screening and early check-ins.
    However, what the public is not prepared to tolerate is negligence and dereliction in airline safety.
    Revelations on Capitol Hill that Federal Aviation Administration inspectors have become too cozy with airlines are no surprise to industry insiders who’ve known for years that oversight had become loose, even negligent in some airlines.
    As these congressional hearings progress, one apparent cause for the inexcusable laxity is airline cost cutting—delaying, even skipping, certain required maintenance procedures to reduce soaring expenses and stop shrinking of profits.
    A few diligent inspectors blew the whistle on this frightful dereliction. Their reward was threats from supervisors, demotions and transfers, which seems to be the instinctive Washington bureaucratic response to responsible behavior.
    It is small comfort that the U.S. airline industry has had a relatively commendable safety record. One might say this is as much a matter of luck as design.
    But it is no comfort to learn now that four air carriers have grounded significant numbers of their fleets for safety checks and found, among other things, cracks in aircraft fuselages.

    Before agitated congressmen begin taking bows, it should be pointed out that the lawmakers share in this disgrace. Their so-called oversight committees either have been asleep to rumors about negligence in airline safety inspections or they’ve been placated by airline lobbyists assuring them all is well.
    The FAA is a sprawling bureaucracy with a multitude of missions—funding airports, examining and licensing pilots and aircraft, conducting safety inspections, providing technological aids for navigation and flight, air traffic control operations and more. But it also has been beset by troubling failures—costly computer systems failures, a shortage of traffic controllers, lax safety inspections, obsolete control technologies, etc.
    If all that comes of these horrifying revelations of lax safety inspections is sputtering by congressmen, and no genuine reform in the ranks of the FAA, then this will have just been more political grandstanding in an election year.

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