Although the U.S. aviation industry is experiencing its safest period in history there have been a series of high-profile events that have raised concerns regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of safety in the National Airspace System (NAS). The FAA recently proposed fining Southwest Airlines $10.2 million for operating over 40 aircraft that had not received all required safety inspections. Subsequent FAA audits of maintenance records have resulted in a number of other air carriers grounding planes while they ensure their aircraft comply with safety regulations.
In addition, there is continuing Congressional interest in other key safety issues, including runway incursions, operational errors and the FAA’s oversight of maintenance operations. This hearing will examine these safety issues, and the FAA’s implementation of the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), the new systematic approach the agency has implemented to address safety oversight.
John D. Rockefeller, IVSenatorThe Federal Aviation Administration’s lax oversight of Southwest Airlines has cast a serious pall over the agency’s ability to execute its core mission – the safety of the nation’s aviation systems.It is our job today to ask, is this just an isolated incident as some at the FAA and Southwest contend, or is this part of a larger, systemic problem facing both the agency and the industry?When it comes to the safety of the air traveling public, the American people have put their trust in the men and women of the Federal Aviation Administration and the mechanics of the commercial airlines. They, like many of us in Congress, look to them to make sure that the planes that take the skies are safe.But in recent weeks, that that trust has been put to the test -- first, with the disturbing reports surrounding the lack of FAA oversight over Southwest, and the revelations involving the FAA’s Southwest Region office.Almost nightly, there are news stories of major commercial airlines grounding hundreds of flights for maintenance inspections which result in tens of thousands of frustrated and stranded passengers.Bottom line -- each passing day brings more questions, and not enough answers. Despite the growing questions surrounding the FAA’s oversight of the airline industry, the White House and Department of Transportation remain inexplicably silent. When the Administration should be assembling a task force to investigate this issue and make recommendations for improving aviation safety, the Administration seems content to disregard the concerns of the travelling public.The FAA has taken some steps to rebuild the public’s confidence in the agency’s core mission of maintaining the safety of the nation’s aviation system. And moving forward, the FAA needs to take a good long look at itself to begin to understand how internal failures, and the agency’s external relationships with commercial air carriers, contributed to current situation.
Many, including myself, have long-criticized the agency for being too close to the industry it regulates. In 1996, to stave off efforts to privatize the agency, Congress grudgingly accepted provisions that would allow the FAA to operate more like a business – in the hopes that it would cost less to operate.Well, the FAA is not a business. It’s a government agency. The FAA does not provide commercial services. It provides public goods – air traffic control, aircraft certification, and safety oversight. We pay taxes for these services.Clearly, it’s time to start thinking about the FAA differently. Toward that end, we need the FAA to operate as the most efficient and effective government agency it can be. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that I think is incredibly, deeply important. Bringing about institutional change is never easy, but I think that this Committee and the aviation community must make it a priority.The air traveling public wants solutions – and they want to be reassured that our nation’s aviation system is still the safest in the world.No doubt, many of our witnesses will remind the Committee that there has not been a fatal airline accident in almost two years, and that statistically this is the safest time to fly. I don’t disagree – but I still have serious concerns that there are an increasing number of safety challenges facing the FAA and the industry that, left unaddressed, could lead to a catastrophic accident.For instance, the number of serious runway incursions remains unacceptably high and is trending in a troubling direction. We have all read and seen stories of near misses at our nation’s airports. Let’s be honest, had it not been for the quick-thinking and actions of a few air traffic controllers and pilots, our nation would have had one, if not several, major accidents claiming the lives of hundreds of people.I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I’m afraid that our aviation system is operating on borrowed time.Airlines take the right action 99% of the time when it comes to safety. But, that’s not good enough. As we all know too well, the margins of error in aviation are far too small. It is the one percent that can result in tragedy. Our incredible safety record is fragile enough at the moment that we need to be working together to make sure we maintain and strengthen the world’s finest aviation system.
Daniel K. InouyeSenator
The traveling public has been very fortunate that despite the recent publicized lapses in safety inspections and maintenance, we are currently experiencing the safest period in the history of aviation.
Safety is the paramount consideration upon which our commercial aviation system was built. It should be the highest priority for air carriers and the core value for pilots. This single-minded focus on safety has served the U.S. aviation industry well. And it must always serve as the primary guide for all the decisions made by the FAA.
Unfortunately, the aviation industry’s safety reputation has been recently tarnished. Last year, this Committee’s hearing on the FAA’s oversight of repair stations raised significant questions about whether the agency has the ability and the resources necessary to keep track of the complex, global operations of many air carriers.
Equally disturbing are the recent revelations that airlines have not complied with a number of airworthiness directives. Over the past two days, American Airlines was forced to cancel approximately 2,100 flights in order to re-inspect wiring on their MD-80 aircraft. As a result of the incidents reported over the last few months, I have serious concerns about the FAA’s ability to maintain a vigilant safety oversight program.
It is my hope that this hearing will provide us with a better understanding of how these recent lapses in safety occurred and what the FAA is doing about it. The Congress will not tolerate poor oversight of the safety of air travelers.
As we proceed with the reauthorization of the FAA, we must ensure that Congress provides the agency with the resources necessary for effective oversight of our commercial aviation system. We must also consider what additional authorities may be necessary for the FAA to ensure that safety remains the hallmark of the U.S. aviation system.
At the same time, the FAA must vigorously ensure that commercial air carriers are complying with their safety mandate in a thorough and timely manner.
The traveling public may be assured that this Committee will continue to monitor the FAA’s and the aviation industry’s efforts to improve on its safety record.
Ted StevensSenator“Given the recent high profile maintenance incidents and the continued economic woes of the airline industry, it has never been more crucial that our aviation safety system is operating at its highest level. The U.S. aviation safety system is a complex and redundant system that includes layers of coordination between many stakeholders including the FAA, air carriers, manufacturers, pilots, inspectors and controllers, amongst others. When the ‘safety first’ culture breaks down, it cannot – must not fail. The FAA and all the aviation stakeholders involved have a professional and moral responsibility to maintain the utmost level of aviation safety.“In Alaska, our aviation community has worked hard to create an ever improving culture of safety. As I have reported to this Committee many times, Alaska is dependent on aviation more than any other state. With the vast spectrum and sheer amount of commercial cargo and general aviation in our state, it has been a challenge to continually decrease our accident rates. Through programs like Capstone, Alaskans have been able to make dramatic strides in the area of aviation safety. The FAA and Alaska aviation industry stakeholders have set a long-term goal of equipping Alaska based aircraft and installing ADS-B ground infrastructure to cover 90% of the operations in our state. By working collaboratively to reach that goal, the FAA estimates there will be a 33 percent reduction in fatal accidents over the next 27 years.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Hank KrakowskiChief Operating Officer, Air Traffic OrganizationFederal Aviation Administration
The Honorable Calvin L. Scovel IIIInspector GeneralU.S. Department of Transportation
Mr. Basil BarimoVice President of Operations and SafetyAir Transport Association
The Honorable Steven R. ChealanderMemberNational Transportaion Safety Board
Nicholas SabatiniAssociate Administrator for Aviation SafetyFederal Aviation Administration (FAA)
Tom BrantleyPresidentProfessional Aviation Safety Specialists