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Sharper oversight of airlines needed
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 7/8/2008 12:06 AM

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An audit of the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of the airline industry ought to be among the free reading material offered to airline passengers in the seat in front of them.

Because the flying public ought to know of disturbing flaws in the FAA's airline inspection system, and demand changes in the interest of their safety.

In a report released last week, the U.S. Department of Aviation's inspector general stated that "it appears FAA management fostered a culture whereby air carriers were considered the primary customer of its oversight mission instead of the flying public."

The inspector general goes on to report that the FAA, in its airline inspection role, "promotes a pattern of excessive leniency at the expense of effective oversight."

The FAA's job is not to be "lenient" but thorough and uncompromising in deeming whether aircraft are in the best shape to fly.

The inspector general's probe stemmed from whistle-blowers' complaints that the FAA and Southwest Airlines were lax in inspecting the fuselages of Southwest's Boeing 737 fleet for cracks. When Southwest checked the aircraft, fuselage cracks were found in five, according to federal auditors.

The airline was fined $10 million by the FAA, which also called for safety audits of other carriers. That led to the chaos at O'Hare International Airport this spring when hundreds of flights had to be grounded.

The inspector general has offered a number of good recommendations to improve FAA oversight of airlines. These include establishing an independent organization to investigate safety issues brought forth by employees. This is critical in assuring whistle-blowers can raise legitimate questions about inspections without fear of reprisals.

Of course, it shouldn't take whistle-blowers to catch potential flaws in the inspection system. The inspector general is also recommending that the FAA increase its own oversight of inspections and step up efforts to verify that safety violations are corrected. In other words, do its job.

The report also recommends that FAA supervisory inspectors be rotated to "ensure reliable and objective air carrier oversight."

These critical findings have to be kept in the context that, overall, the airline industry still has a strong safety record. The airlines and the FAA's inspection systems are not so flawed that passengers need to worry that scores of planes that are not safe to fly are leaving the runway every day. And the FAA agrees with the inspector general's findings and says it has already acted on most of the recommendations.

The FAA ought to follow through on all of them, and make it very clear to the airlines - and their passengers - that its oversight will not be blurred by a too-cozy relationship with the industry it is set up to regulate in the interest of safety.