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"Study highlights aircraft inspection problems"

Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Study highlights aircraft inspection problems
By Alan Levin

WASHINGTON - The federal government's program to oversee airline safety
is plagued by poor training, inconsistent management and inadequate
analysis of the data it collects, a report obtained by USA TODAY says.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), criticized for failing to
detect problems leading to airline crashes, needs to speed improvements
in the inspection program, says the Department of Transportation's
Inspector General.

"The system is not reaching its full potential, and significant
challenges to full implementation still exist," says a summary of the
report, which will be released at a hearing before Congress Thursday.

The report praises the goals of the safety program and says the agency
has made significant improvements in the past year. But the report is
the latest of several to say that the agency stumbled when it introduced
its Air Transportation Oversight System in 1998.

Instead of relying on a limited number of inspectors to check aircraft,
the FAA decided to push carriers to make managerial changes to emphasize
safety and to conduct extensive analysis to spot safety problems before
they cause harm. The changes were spurred by the 1996 ValuJet crash,
which was blamed in part on inadequate maintenance oversight. The
investigation of the Alaska Airlines crash in 2000 also is focusing on
maintenance problems.

FAA officials acknowledge that introduction of the program was rocky.
But they say most of the early problems have been solved and with time
the new program will provide far better results.

However, the inspector general found these problems:

   Data collection systems still fall short. FAA inspectors at an
unnamed carrier found loose bolts on a jet that could have led to a fuel
leak, but the system's computers would not allow them to note the
problem in agency databases.

   Though the new system is based on concepts for imbedding safety
protections in airline management, 84% of FAA inspectors told the
inspector general they had not been trained in these concepts.

   Management of the system has been inconsistent. At some FAA offices,
its inspectors work jointly with airline auditors, while at others
inspections are done independently.

   The new system is used to oversee only the 10 largest airlines. FAA
planned to expand its program to the other carriers two years ago, but
problems delayed the expansion. The FAA has transferred concepts from
the new program to its oversight of smaller carriers. 


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