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FAA routinely misses airline inspection deadlines

WASHINGTON – Government inspections to uncover serious maintenance problems that could cause airline crashes are often delayed for years or focus on less critical problems, according to a government watchdog.  

In a report being circulated in Congress, the Department of Transportation's inspector general identified several weaknesses in a key Federal Aviation Administration airline maintenance oversight program. Unless FAA fixes those weaknesses, the report said, its ability to "effectively oversee" the nation's aviation system is lessened.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report on Friday.

FAA launched the program in 1998 at the 10 largest U.S. airlines in response to years of complaints that its inspections were missing serious problems. Since then it has expanded to 94 airlines. The airlines are analyzed to see if they have designed an effective overall maintenance program and that FAA inspections are concentrated on the riskiest areas.

FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the agency made several changes in the inspection program that address problems raised by the inspector general, including a process started last spring to track overdue or incomplete assessments and ensure proper follow-up.

"The FAA is confident in its ability to oversee the National Airspace System," Spitaliere said in a statement.

The most important part of the program assesses an airline's overall maintenance policies and procedures, and is supposed to be conducted every five years. But completion of the assessments was delayed at all eight major carriers reviewed in the report for as much as eight years.

Carriers reviewed in the report are Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways. Over an eight-year period, FAA inspectors failed to complete 207 key inspections on time.

The inspector general spent more than three years reviewing the program.

"Cracks in the oversight program can prove deadly," said former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall. He noted that the airline industry's fleet is aging, which means more maintenance is needed.

"Despite annual reports of deficiencies there doesn't seem to be improvement," he said.

At three FAA offices, the report said more than five years lapsed between inspections to find out if airlines were effective in following FAA safety orders, even though inspectors noted the time lag meant increased risk. Overdue inspections continued even after FAA cut back on inspectors' workloads.

FAA relies heavily on airlines to voluntarily disclose maintenance mistakes such as safety orders not followed or repairs performed incorrectly. The agency adds the disclosures to databases in order to spot long-term trends. In exchange for their disclosures, airlines aren't penalized for their errors.

But FAA inspectors don't use of all the available safety data or use the databases to spot trends, the report said.

The report follows up on congressional hearings in 2008 on safety lapses at Southwest Airlines. The airline flew nearly 60,000 flights on Boeing 737s that hadn't been inspected for possible cracks in their fuselages.

The violations were disclosed by an FAA whistleblower. The agency's maintenance supervisor in the office that permitted Southwest to fly without the inspections later retired. FAA proposed fining Southwest $10.2 million, but settled the case for $7.5 million.

The episode also exposed serious weaknesses in FAA's high-risk inspection program at Southwest. This latest report follows up on requests made by lawmakers at the 2008 hearings to examine the effectiveness of the program at other airlines.
Updated : 18-12-2010 02:46:25
Source : http://news.yahoo.com
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