Under fire for lapses in oversight of airline safety, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday defended its close cooperation with airlines.
Acting Administrator Robert A. Sturgell, apologizing to passengers stranded by recent flight cancellations, cautioned a Senate subcommittee against overreacting to concerns about the FAA’s reliance on voluntarily policing by airlines.
Criticism of the Air Transportation Oversight System has grown since some whistle-blowers described a host of safety lapses in a recent House committee hearing.
Sturgell, whose confirmation as administrator is being held up in the Senate, responded to critics by noting that compliance with the program is close to 99%. “Those who push to abandon partnership and voluntary disclosure programs, I believe, are shortsighted,” he said in his first appearance before Congress since the revelations about lapses.
Sturgell’s testimony, however, came as the Transportation Department’s inspector general issued a scathing report on the failure of inspectors to review Southwest Airlines’ system for compliance. As of Tuesday, four “key” FAA inspections remain overdue at the airline.
“The balance tipped too heavily in favor of collaboration at the expense of effective oversight and appropriate enforcement,” Inspector General Calvin Scovel III said.
Sturgell said a team has almost finished the final Southwest inspections.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the appropriations transportation subcommittee, said the FAA “has been inconsistent and erratic.”
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said: “It’s obvious that the senior management has to be held responsible for slipshod leadership.”
Scovel made seven recommendations to improve oversight, including rotating inspection supervisors so they do not become attached to the airline they are monitoring.
Sturgell said uprooting supervisors would be costly and could undermine institutional memory. He embraced one of the inspector general’s recommendations, announcing the FAA would soon require a “cooling-off” period to prevent employees who go to work at an airline from conducting business with former colleagues.
When the FAA hires an inspector from an airline, it allows only limited interaction with the inspector’s previous employer for the first two years on the job, but inspectors leaving the FAA have not been restricted.
Sturgell said airlines should be responsible for doing their own quality control.
“If we return to a ‘gotcha’ approach of decades past -- when there were signs in the hangars: ‘Don’t talk with the FAA’ -- I think we risk driving safety underground,” he said. “Hidden data obscures trends. Undiscovered trends are a precursor to accidents. Silence breeds catastrophe. I’m not willing to accept that.”
The hearing was on the agency’s budget request for next year. The subcommittee has provided more funds for safety oversight than the administration requested in four of the last seven years, Murray said.
In his report, Scovel also warned of pending mass retirements of controllers and inspectors.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) worried that 50 retirements by Los Angeles-based air-traffic controllers this year might create “catastrophic risk” of runway incursions.
Sturgell said the FAA planned to hire 1,800 air traffic controllers next year, a net gain of about 300. He promised adequate staffing to keep Los Angeles skies safe.
Murray told Sturgell she had no confidence that he would follow through on promises to improve safety and oversight.
“We are trying to do the right thing,” Sturgell said.