Maintenance Under The Microscope
In the wake of the Midwest Air crash in Charlotte
(NC) earlier this year, the Charlotte
Observer has been looking into watchdog complaints about
commercial airline maintenance. Now, the paper has dug up a series
of Government Accounting Office (GAO) and other federal government
reports citing a number of incidents over the past 18 years:
Beginning in 1985, the GAO, the watchdog of Congress, reported
on regional differences among FAA safety inspections. Two years
later, the GAO pondered maintenance in a deregulated airline
economy, suggesting the "fiercely competitive, deregulated
environment" could affect aircraft maintenance.
A year later, in 1988, the cabin of an Aloha Airlines was ripped
asunder in flight, killing one flight attendant and injuring 61
passengers. This time, the NTSB blamed the FAA for failing to
properly monitor aircraft maintenance.
Six years after the
Aloha incident, the DOT Inspector General found what it termed
widespread use of unapproved parts and outdated maintenance manuals
at contract repair stations used by airlines. In that 1994 report,
the IG recommended the FAA needed to conduct more detailed
inspections of contract maintenance shops. If the FAA didn't beef
up inspections, the IG warned, it ran the risk of allowing
substandard maintenance that could put lives in jeopardy.
Investigators in the 1997 crash of a ValuJet DC-9 blamed
maintenance contractors for the deaths of all 110 people on board.
The contractors improperly stowed oxygen canisters in the
aircraft's cargo hold. They caught fire, leading to the crash.
While the NTSB blamed ValuJet for not properly monitoring its
contractor, it also blamed the FAA for its lack of oversight.
The FAA continued taking hits for failing to adequately inspect
contract repair shops in the years that followed. In 1998, the GAO
recommended FAA inspectors keeping an eye on such facilities work
in teams rather than alone. Three years later, the DOT IG
determined the FAA wasn't doing enough to make sure airlines
policed their own maintenance programs.
After the FAA
instituted the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), the DOT
IG found major problems in the program. It found the FAA's own
inspectors had no confidence in the program and needed to be
further trained to properly implement it.
Earlier this year, the GAO condemned the FAA's own training
program, saying it was inadequate and outdated -- it hadn't been
substantively changed in more than 50 years. Last July, the DOT IG
reported contract repair stations, now tasked with performing
approximately 50 percent of all commercial passenger aircraft
maintenance, were improperly supervised by the FAA. The IG
recommended the FAA give its inspectors more time and better
resources to do the job right.