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Inspecting the Inspectors : Congressional hearings must probe the FAA’s airline inspection program

Americans have heard this tune before, and it’s not a happy one. For the third time in four years, a top government investigative agency has found the airline inspection program operated by the Federal Aviation Administration to be dangerously wanting.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the FAA fails most notably in following up on whether its recommendations for repairs on airliners are actually undertaken.

The Times reported that the GAO study also found that in fiscal year 1990, FAA inspectors spent only 23% of their time performing routine investigations of airline operations and maintenance, instead of the required 35%.

There are disturbing similarities between these findings and those of previous studies that also found that the FAA did not spend enough time on surveillance.

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Unfortunately, there’s more. According to the GAO, the FAA failed to make the required three annual inspections of airliners; 36% of U.S. airliners, or 1,305 of 3,600, did not receive all three inspections in 1990.

The woeful inadequacies of FAA oversight have been highlighted before, not just in GAO studies but in The Times’ own reporting on the safety of the nation’s air transport system several years ago. At that time one respected air safety consultant remarked that “FAA and industry reaction sometimes seem to be that you need an accident to know there is a problem. If you need an accident to know you have a problem, then you are part of the problem.”

The FAA does not dispute that its inspection program is flawed, but it contends overall safety is unaffected. There are not enough inspectors, the FAA says, and the GAO agrees on this key point. The Transportation Department, of which the FAA is a part, claims the GAO conclusion is overstated. Although inspection improvements need to be made, “we’re doing our jobs to the best of our ability and the public has nothing to fear,” said an FAA spokesman.

But the millions of Americans who fly on airliners need more concrete assurance than this. Inspections will be the subject of congressional hearings early next year. We look forward to a thorough airing of the concerns, as well as thorough responses from the FAA and Congress. No one wants yet another report in the future that bemoans an inadequate airline inspection system.

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