Turbulence at the FAA

Southwest Airlines incidents show need for greater scrutiny.

By now, Americans have reconciled themselves with the fact that security concerns have changed the airport routine, probably permanently. We take off our shoes, endure the occasional pat-down and find somewhere else to stow our shampoo bottles in the name of safety, confident that the government and the airlines are doing their part by making sure the planes we board are in good condition to fly. Which is why last week’s congressional hearing on lax inspections at Southwest Airlines ought to turn heads, and hopefully, prompt a thorough review of Federal Aviation Administration enforcement procedures.

A recent report found that Southwest Airlines allowed 38 planes to fly more than 1,400 flights without routine inspection. Six planes were found to have cracks in their fuselage, and even after the airline had discovered the problem, it told the government it had grounded them while they continued to be flown. FAA inspectors who knew of the situation and brought it to their superiors’ attention were either ignored, or worse, threatened with their jobs if they didn’t pipe down about the safety concerns. After the reports were made public, Southwest was penalized with a $10.2 million fine for continuing to fly the aircrafts.

The relationship between the FAA and the airline industry should be one of oversight, not partnership. While Southwest Airlines’ record on safety is very good, the fact that it took whistleblowers within the government to force the FAA to do its job points to a much larger concern on who the FAA believes it is serving. It is funded by our tax dollars to protect the public and make sure every flight we take is on an airworthy plane. The FAA has called for an across-the-board review of its inspection practices, and we expect that Congress will hold them to this re-evaluation.

The airline industry is already beset by numerous other problems. The FAA should make sure a tragedy at 30,000 feet doesn’t become one of them.