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Grounded Planes Can Create Crisis of Confidence

U.S.

Grounded Planes Can Create Crisis of Confidence

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Flights canceled because of safety concerns are more than just an inconvenience — if problems aren't addressed quickly and effectively, passengers start to question the safety of air travel. John Goglia, former member of the U.S. Transportation Safety Board, talks about safety in the skies.

NEAL CONAN, host:

It's been a rough couple of weeks for the airlines over the past 48 hours. American Airlines and Delta grounded hundreds of planes in order to re-inspect potential wiring problems, with cancellations possible through early tomorrow morning.

Earlier this month, the government's Federal Aviation Administration fined Southwest Airlines for flying planes with passengers that hadn't been properly inspected for cracks. Cancelled flights due to safety concerns are more than an inconvenience for travelers and nerve-wracking and can lead to a crisis of confidence in air travel if not addresses quickly and effectively.

Well, we'd like to address your concerns. In a moment, we'll talk with a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. And if you have questions about maintenance, inspections and aircraft safety, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We begin with John Goglia. He's a former member of the NTSB and a former professor of aviation science at St. Louis University, currently an independent safety consultant. And he joins us now by phone from New York State.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. JOHN GOGLIA (Independent Safety Consultant): Nice to have me.

CONAN: And why are all these airlines ordering re-inspections?

Mr. GOGLIA: Well, because they couldn't prove to the FAA that the work was done properly.

CONAN: And why now? Is this connected one to the other in any way?

Mr. GOGLIA: Well, I'm sure it is. I'm sure that after the, you know, the blockbuster of an event with Southwest Airlines, I'm sure that everybody started to look inward at themselves and looked at their programs. And also, then, the FAA followed up with their own inspections. And as they've went through the process of reviewing what had been done, I'm sure they found paperwork that caused them to be concerned, which at that point in time doesn't mean the work wasn't done. It just means the paperwork was either misfiled or wasn't filled up properly, or there was some other glitch with the paperwork that caused them the concern.

CONAN: Now, airlines are required to perform safety inspections, no?

Mr. GOGLIA: That's correct.

CONAN: And how often?

Mr. GOGLIA: Well, it depends on the airplane and the frequency. But basically, they use a series of letter checks. An A check is essentially the lowest letter check, and that's typically done at roughly 125 hours. It varies some with flying hours. It varies some by different airlines. And then, you go up to through a B check up through a C check, which is a very extensive check requiring quite a bit of time and tear down of the airplane. And then, the ultimate is the D check, where you actually tear the thing apart into a very high degree.

CONAN: And these rules, these inspections vary by airline, I assume also, by the age of the aircraft?

Mr. GOGLIA: Yes, there are age-driven inspections as well that maybe over and above those letter checks. The airlines like to have those type of inspections fall within the same time frame as the letter checks, but sometimes that just doesn't work and you have to bring the airplane down just to do the aging aircraft inspections.

CONAN: So engineers, when they're looking for maintenance problems or doing these inspections, they look for cracks, they look for wires that are frayed, that sort of thing?

Mr. GOGLIA: They look for everything. I mean, it's called - for the most part, it's called a detailed visual inspection. And that detailed is spelled out exactly, what it means. It could mean using a magnifying glass and a bright light looking at a piece of metal that you would probably say, what are you looking at as far as that level of detail. But you're looking to find the flaws, the little cracks, before they become big cracks because they're easier and less expensive to repair at that point.

CONAN: And you also want to make sure that if this one particular plane might have a problem or might be systemic throughout all of the planes of that type.

Mr. GOGLIA: Well, you've got two elements there. The systemic areas that you would look at, because other airplanes have experienced less stick to cracking in a given area, you would know that because of the nature of the business, where they share that data, so you would be - have a very detailed inspection in that area. And then, you would also do in the whole general area a - maybe a little bit less intense inspection just to make sure there's nothing else going on.

CONAN: We're talking with John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board about the rash of cancelled flights amid questions about maintenance checks. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255. E-mail talk@npr.org.

And Megan(ph) is on the line with us from Chino Hills in California.

MEGAN (Caller): Hi. I was wondering about the inspection process where I was in a flight from Oakland to Southern California recently that one of the valves, I believe, on the brakes was inoperable during the pre-flight inspection, and they got clearance through the FAA to fly the flight. And I'm just wondering what is the criteria, or how important does it have to be for them to not allow the flight? We were there on the tarmac for about an hour or so, waiting to get the clearance.

CONAN: John Goglia?

Mr. GOGLIA: Well, there is a process and it's called the minimum equipment list, where certain items on an airplane are allowed to be dispatched in a non-working state. And to get an item on that MEL list approved to be on that list is quite a task. There are standing committees with the manufacturer, the operators, and it is very robust to get something added on to it.

Many of today's airplanes have dual braking systems, not dual brakes, but dual braking systems, so, one brake is being operated by two hydraulic systems. So if one of them has a valve problem, you can essentially isolate that hydraulic system, the brake will still operate normally on one system.

CONAN: Megan, I bet it was an interesting landing, though, as people waited to see what happened.

MEGAN: Well, it certainly was. It had a lot of turbulence and the pilots face was white after we got off the flight, so I just - and it was a Southwest flight, so it just seemed to me that if they're sending something through the FAA, how were they able to get so many inspections not sent on to the FAA?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Interesting point. John, do you have any answers for her?

Mr. GOGLIA: Well, first off, they don't send inspections onto the FAA. The airline is responsible. The first line of defense and the first person responsible is the airline. The airline presents to the FAA a process that says this is how we're going to maintain our airplanes, and the FAA approves that process and then they monitor the process to make sure you are following it.

And that's what we are having today, as the FAAs come in to these airlines and said, typically, show me how you're monitoring and controlling your airworthiness directors, ADs. And they couldn't answer that question to the satisfaction of the FAA, and the FAA's pushed on them to do more.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Megan, and safe flying.

MEGAN: Alright.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get Joe(ph) on the line. Joe's calling us from Chicago.

JOE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOE: Well, I just wanted to say that John was the right guy to talk to from what I know of him. And he's been involved in aviation for quite a while. And I'm an aircraft mechanic, 20 years, and this - what's occurring this week is really incompetence of the FAA. The folks I'm sure that work in there are hardworking and that, but the hierarchy up above needs to be totally restructured. The FAA is just totally incompetent and that focus is incorrect.

CONAN: That may be, Joe, but nevertheless, these are inspections the FAA says, wait a minute, you know, Delta Air Lines, we don't have your paperwork.

JOE: I don't think it's the FAA that caught this and it was just - somebody turned on the light and prodded them to do their job more. This is a routine of things that occur on a regular basis. There's changes in aviation (unintelligible) required to work more with less, and this is just some of the offshoot of it.

CONAN: Alright, Joe, thanks very much. And John Goglia, do you think he's right? The FAA is incompetent?

Mr. GOGLIA: Well, I wouldn't go that far, but I would say that in any large organization, you have some people that you wish you didn't have. And that's probably will be the case within the FAA as well.

CONAN: One big question a lot of flyers have is, what can I do as a passenger to make sure that the plane I'm boarding is safe? Kevin Mitchell heads the Business Travel Coalition, which has some ideas on that point. He joins us now from his office in Pennsylvania. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. KEVIN MITCHELL (Head, Business Travel Coalition): Thank you, nice to be here.

CONAN: And as I understand it, you want to use the Internet to make the safety records of each individual aircraft available to the public.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I think, you know, first of all the inspections of the last several days and the developments of the last couple of weeks will ultimately shift to a bigger problem, which is all of the outsourcing to foreign maintenance bases where there is an adequate FAA oversight or experienced and certified mechanics. And when that happens, I think passengers are going to become quite concerned and I think it will make abundant sense to have in their hands the kind of information that will allow them to know where their plane was maintained last, or where it is routinely maintained, so that they can vote with their pocket.

CONAN: So, let's say for example, I'm planning a flight from, well, Washington Reagan Airport to San Francisco - just to pick a place - and I book a flight on - well, just to pick an airline - Alaska Airlines and they say, well, are you going to fly a 747 and what seat would you like, and all that sort of stuff. How would I find the record of that particular aircraft on your Web site?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, that would be information that would have to be developed. That is not out there at that granular level yet, but the idea would be to move toward that so that a passenger could look at, let's say, option A, where the aircraft was maintained in lets say, Indonesia, a suspected al-Qaida stronghold by workers with no training in a non-secured facility that hardly ever gets inspected by the FAA. Option B might be, the aircraft is maintained here in the United States by mechanics with 18 years of experience, supervised by licensed airline inspectors with abundant FAA-certified inspectors overseeing the program. And that, you know, it's kind of obvious to me which option they're going to take.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. John Goglia, is there that much of a difference between aircraft that are maintained as Wayne says in, excuse me, as our guest says in Indonesia or as opposed to in Chicago, for example?

Mr. GOGLIA: Well, we have no good way of telling the difference. And the airlines have that information. They have the reliability numbers of airplanes that are maintained out of the country, but they don't share that with anybody, they keep it closed. So we really don't know, but we do know - through anecdotal means - we do know that many of these airplanes coming back from work that's being performed out of its country have considerably more problems, heating problems, if you will, when they come back into the country than airplanes that are maintained by their own company's own facilities.

CONAN: That's John Goglia, a former member of the United States National Transportation Safety Board, and former Professor of Aviation Science at St. Louis University also with us Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Mike(ph) on the line. Mike's calling us from Jacksonville in Florida.

MIKE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Mike. You are on the air.

MIKE (Caller): I've been listening this for the past couple of weeks and this is a line of work that I do in the Navy. It's specifically called non-destructive inspection. And what we do on military aircraft, magnetic particle inspection, liquid penetrate - even on radiography, if you'll think back to the Challenger crash, that was because radiography wasn't performed, they didn't see a dry-rider(ph) O ring. I've got a lot of people who are friends of mine who are getting out of the military and they're having a hard time finding a job when it's very, very specialized training and I've seen why - I'm probably pretty sure that's it's not to that extent, but I see now that, you know, airlines aren't hiring them, they're shirking off the responsibility, every airline should have these people in place to do these inspections for them and, it's not happening, and obviously it's not happening because, look what's happening.

CONAN: Mike, I'm just trying to read between those lines there, are you suggesting that these jobs are being outsourced overseas for people who work for a lot less than American unionized workers might work for and that's why you can't get a job doing this?

MIKE: No, no, no. Not me. I'm still in the military. I'm still employed. I have a lot of friends who do this very specialized work who are having a hard time finding employment, and I don't see why. It seems like it's an integral part of the airline business and safety and inspections, and I've heard a lot of conversation about this, and people aren't calm with it. We are not getting these non-destructive, and by non-destructive, it means that doing inspections and some metallurgy and it's without destroying the part. And it would detect these fine cracks. It would detect all of these stress rises and cyclical fatigue and things that happen to aircraft when they're under these stresses being 40,000 feet in the air.

And, you know, there's just no emphasis put on it - I see why there's not. Now you have this coming two ahead, where if these airlines would have had these people in place in-house, they would have had these inspections done. We know how to keep record, they know how to keep this data because they have been doing it for 20 years through the military, the military's a big source, but it's very small in the civilian community.

CONAN: Sure. Yeah, I understand. John Goglia, do you think Mike's got a point?

Mr. GOGLIA: Well, to the employment side of it, the airlines did ramp up for all the NDT specialties in the late '70s and early '80s, and those people are still in place. There's full departments that handle all of that. And once you ramp them up and get them up to your head count and the focus has been always on hiring younger people, so those people are still in place and they probably have another 10 years to run before they retire and before we'll start hiring into those jobs again, big numbers. So that's the reason why he hasn't seen the hiring.

CONAN: I see.

Mr. GOGLIA: But all those non-destructive techniques that he's talking about are routinely used in the commercial aviation business. Where they fall down most of the time is the record-keeping portion, not on the hangar floor, but after the paper leaves the hangar and gets into the paper mill, if you will. I don't think people can appreciate the volumes and volumes of paper documents that are generated from aircraft maintenance. It's huge. If a piece of paper gets filed with the wrong airplane or the wrong tail number, you will never find it. And oftentimes, the airlines find themselves in position where they can't show that piece of paper for a task that was accomplished and it's far easier to go out and accomplish the task the second time.

CONAN: Kevin Mitchell, I just want to bring you back in, we just have a few seconds left, but I know you work with people in corporate travel departments who have to book employees on flights all the time, do they tell you they're worried?

Mr. MITCHELL: There's a huge gap between what senior management at these corporations perceive to be the process for aircraft maintenance and FAA oversight, a huge gap between that and reality on the ground. And it's so alarming that I think, you know, we have an unprecedented partnership now between labor and business to look into this issue and to drive for a fundamental legislative reform of the FAA and how it oversees the industry.

CONAN: Thanks very much appreciate your time today.

Mr. MITCHELL: Thank you.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a group that represents large corporate travel buyers, with us from his office in Pennsylvania, also our thanks to John Goglia, former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, today he works as an independent safety consultant with us by phone from New York State, thanks very much for your time today, John.

Mr. GOGLIA: Okay. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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