What's Wrong With the FAA
The FAA is supposed to police commercial aviation, but the agency still refuses to act like a tough cop on the beat
Inspections. If the FAA is going to strictly enforce rules like those regulating airplane parts, it must revamp the way it polices the industry. It does that now with a 2,500-person safety inspection force that government audits show has been hampered by malfeasance, fraud and favoritism. A 1992 probe of the FAA's inspection system by Schiavo's investigators found that 23,000 "required" inspections of airlines and small air charter and taxi services had never been done. As a result, 1,100 air carriers were not inspected. The audit also found that FAA inspectors would not or could not follow agency guidelines requiring them to spend at least 35 percent of their time in the field doing inspections. The average, by Schiavo's measure, was 28 percent. Most troubling, 52 percent of the flight crew inspections reviewed in Schiavo's audit were performed by FAA pilots who were not technically qualified.
Thomas Accardi, the FAA's director of Flight Standards Service, says the inspectors have a massive job: monitoring 3,500 airlines--from United and American Airlines to small, one-pilot operations flying into the Alaskan bush. "We believe safety is a shared responsibility," Accardi says. "We don't think you can just inspect it in .... We will never have an inspector in every cockpit or a maintenance expert in every airplane." Recently, he says, the agency has fixed the problem of its inspectors flying without proper ratings, and it plans to add 600 inspectors in the next three years. Like Hinson, Accardi says the key to improving safety will be the "promotion of sharing information" with the airlines.
In dozens of interviews, inspectors say their troubles are more fundamental: Their superiors often prevent them from doing their jobs. In 1993, Mary Rose Diefenderfer found herself at the center of such a storm. The FAA's principal operations inspector for Alaska Airlines, she had discovered that five of its top pilots, including the vice president for flight operations, were flying without current training or had falsified training records. Not trusting her supervisor, Diefenderfer contacted the FAA's security branch. An investigation confirmed her suspicions. But when Diefenderfer's bosses found out about the case, they reassigned her. A former airline pilot with more than 4,000 hours in DC-9s, Diefenderfer was transferred to a desk job answering public document requests. She got her old post back--after threatening to sue. But the FAA chose not to follow her recommendation--and FAA guidelines. Instead of revoking the pilots' licenses, FAA supervisors let four of them fly as copilots and, after a year, as captains. Only the vice president's pilot certificate was suspended--for three months. Alaska Airlines declined to comment. Accardi praised Diefenderfer and said the FAA took "some severe actions" in punishing the pilots.
Diefenderfer's case is not unusual, some FAA inspectors assert. They say they frequently encounter pressure from supervisors, and from the FAA's Washington headquarters, when they question the safety of a plane, a pilot, repairs or training methods. "If we try to ground an airplane belonging to a major airline, we know that the airline's CEO is going to pick up the phone and call" Washington, says one inspector, assigned to an airline in Texas. "It's almost a given."