FAA told to audit airline safety data for accuracy


The Federal Aviation Administration should audit information it receives from airlines on safety and maintenance issues to ensure its accuracy, a panel of aviation safety experts said yesterday.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters asked an outside panel earlier this year to review FAA safety policies in the wake of blistering criticism from Congress and the Transportation Department’s inspector general that the FAA had grown too cozy with air carriers. The FAA relies heavily on self-reported data from airlines to spot trends that could lead to mechanical failures or plane crashes.

The criticism stemmed from safety lapses in the past two years by American Airlines and Southwest Airlines. The government fined Southwest $10.2 million for flying 46 Boeing 747s that had not been checked for fuselage cracks.

Panel members said they supported the FAA’s strategy of working closely with airlines on maintenance and safety issues, citing the approach as integral to the nation’s aviation safety system.

Panel member William O. McCabe, a former aviation executive at DuPont, said the FAA had to focus on “leading indicators” by sifting through data. He called the system “looking for ugly.”

McCabe said safety officials can’t depend on post-crash analysis for cues on safety given the small number of major incidents.

The panel made 13 recommendations for changes at the agency, including implementing the audits, more training of inspectors and more consistency in inspection rules. Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell said the agency would work “full throttle” to implement the changes.

Peters and Sturgell used the panel’s report to defend the agency. Sturgell said the report “validated” the FAA’s overall safety approach. Peters said the FAA had a “determined and persistent” focus on safety that was the world’s “gold-standard.”

The five-member panel was chaired by Edward W. Stimpson, a former Clinton aviation appointee and a past president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.