FAA Urged To Adopt Safety Recommendations
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now let's follow up on safety in the skies. Ever since a commuter flight crashed near Buffalo early this year, killing 50 people, there's been a debate about the safety standards on regional airlines. Yesterday, the new chief of the Federal Aviation Administration, Randy Babbitt, said that small, regional airlines are held to the same standards as the major carriers. That's what he said. But a government investigator who appeared before the same Senate panel said that that's not the case. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan said he called the hearing of the aviation subcommittee he chairs because he's concerned that there is a double standard when it comes to airline safety.
Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): We are supposed to be having one level of safety for both regional and major carriers and I want to hear from our new administrator, FAA Administrator Babbitt, whether he things that is actually the case and whether the FAA has kept up with the changes in the industry and is able to ensure one level of safety.
NAYLOR: Since the mid-1990s, FAA Administrator Babbitt testified all airlines operating planes with more than ten seats are required to meet the same safety regulations, but the crash of the Colgan air flight on a wintry night near Buffalo has raised questions about pilot training, proficiency, and pay at the regional airlines.
At a recent National Transportation Safety Board hearing, investigators testified the co-pilot had flown across the country as a passenger the night before and had talked in the cockpit of her lack of experience dealing with icing conditions.
There was evidence the pilot responded incorrectly when the turbo-prop plane began to stall. Babbitt, a former pilot, says he and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood are working to improve the safety of commuter airlines.
Mr. RANDY BABBITT (Chief Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration): We have ordered FAA inspectors to immediately focus their inspections on training programs to better insure that all airlines, including regional airlines, are complying with federal regulations.
NAYLOR: But Transportation Department Inspector General. Calvin Scovel, told the Senate panel his investigators have found there's sometimes are two standards.
Mr. CALVIN SCOVEL (Transportation Department Inspector General): Our preliminary audit work has identified differences in regional and mainline carrier's operations and potential differences in pilot training programs and level of flight experience.
NAYLOR: The FAA also came under fire at the hearing for other practices involving major carriers. Last year, Scovel warned that FAA inspectors had too cozy of a relationship with Southwest Airlines. Yesterday he told the panel the agency has failed to inspect operations at other carriers. The inspections are known as Air Transportation Oversight Systems, or ATOS.
Mr. SCOVEL: Our ongoing work has determined that lapses in oversight inspections were not limited to Southwest. FAA oversight offices for seven other major air carriers also missed ATOS inspections. Some had been allowed to lapse well beyond the five-year inspection cycle.
NAYLOR: There was also criticism that the FAA has failed to heed hundreds of changes recommended by the NTSB after its investigations of other accidents and incidents. Acting NTSB Chairman, Mark Rosenker, didn't have to think long when he was asked how many recommendations were ignored by the FAA.
Mr. MARK ROSENKER (National Transportation Safety Board Chairman): Four hundred and fifty are outstanding today, many of which are more than 10 to 15 years old.
NAYLOR: Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California called that an outrage.
Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): That, to me, is an indictment of the FAA. It's not about anybody personally. It's the institution, it's the way they think, and it's very disturbing to me.
NAYLOR: Babbitt said while not every NTSB recommendation will ultimately be adopted, he promised to be more transparent about the process.
Brain Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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