Americans are accustomed to images of packed airports, delayed flights and masses of weary passengers, especially around the holidays. But the past few weeks have been different. This time it was a matter of safety--and charges that the Federal Aviation Administration has gotten too cozy with the industry it regulates.
Starting with the revelation that Southwest Airlines was behind on safety inspections, the FAA ordered a national audit. Before long, thousands of flights had been cancelled as the nation's biggest carriers scrambled to comply with inspection requirements. Lawmakers on Capital Hill rounded up FAA administrators for hearings on what went wrong and what other safety issues, if any, haven't yet been addressed.
Leading the pressure is Democratic congressman James Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which regulates the FAA. Oberstar spoke with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone about the airline crisis. Excerpts.
NEWSWEEK: What's the real timing behind these increased inspections and the new focus on aviation safety?
Rep. James Oberstar: We got information last summer from a whistleblower who came to the committee's staff and said, "I've tried within the system to correct the course to require the airlines to do these inspections, in a timely fashion." He said that there were airlines flying well beyond the dates established under the Airworthiness Directive [a notice sent to plane operators by the FAA about proper functioning and maintenance of equipment]. He told us he had not only been rebuffed but also told to keep his mouth shut. Now that's wrong, and he told us that for several years he hadn't been able to get the attention of congress because there isn't an overall mindset. He brought information and I reviewed it with staff, and I asked for further documentation. I asked for very meticulous information on every issue raised by at first one, but as it turned out five courageous whistle blowers. It took us months to evaluate all the claims and gather documentation to back it all up. Earlier this year, we were ready to go ahead.
Did FAA officials have any indication you were looking into those accusations?
Throughout the process, the FAA became quite aware of our probing and digging. They began to leak information favorable to their cause. So before I went into the Mayo clinic for a hip surgery in early March, I had a news conference to lay out the principle issues we had uncovered, followed by FAA's imposition on a $10 million fine on Southwest and then several steps that FAA took. They sent a special team to investigate Southwest. Then, Southwest put a few employees on administrative leave and the next day they grounded 41 aircraft that should have been inspected long ago. So we've just had a cascade of inspection events.
At this point, the FAA seems to be complying. Do you think it's genuine or a dramatic demonstration to make up for work that wasn't done?
On the part of FAA administrator Nicholas Sabatini, I think he is a general safety professional, but I don't know all of what has gone on within the FAA, what direction he's had from upper level management. He can trace a good deal of this slippage to a speech by Marion Blakey, who was also a FAA administrator, in 2002 commenting on the precarious economic conditions of the airlines and the need for FAA to work with them. That may have been the beginning of a shift in attitude that led to a regulatory partnership program and to the customer service initiative long after Ms. Blakey left. Clearly there's been a drift away from their role described in the FAA Act of 1958 that says in the opening paragraph: "Safety in aviation should be maintained at the highest possible level."
American Airlines and its passengers seem to be taking the hardest fall, with nearly 3,300 cancelled flights. Why is that?
They're taking a much closer look at their own operations and realizing that they were out of compliance with the Airworthiness Directive. When they did the first round of inspections they subsequently found they overlooked some aspects of the investigation and went back to do it again. I think this is a renewal of the safety culture inculcated at American Airlines after the  crash of a plane in Chicago after taking off from O'Hare when an engine rotated off the aircraft and crashed and more than 110 people died.
How long do you think we'll see the effect of this, in terms of more cancelled flights and unpredictability at airports?
I think this will go on for a while as airlines realign themselves and the FAA adjusts its attitude to be rigorous with the airlines and not partners with them, not treating them as customers. I think we can expect more aircraft being pulled out of service because they weren't inspected when they should have been.
Some of the attention toward safety seems odd, as the aviation industry has an extremely low accident rate, far less than one accident for every 100,000 take-offs.
Look, this happened because Southwest Airlines was able to fly well beyond the mandatory maintenance interval required for their aging aircraft check and for their standby rudder control check for leakage every 12,500 miles. Those are not little nit-picky maintenance requirements. One hundred and thirty people died in Aliquippa, Pa., [in 1994] when a 737 crashed because the pilot couldn't control the rudder. The investigation found that the rudder had malfunctioned. Boeing had to go back and redesign and reconstruct and retest their power control unit. And from that accident and all that work resulted in this Airworthiness Directive. For Southwest, which has an all-737 fleet, to fly aircraft for 30 months after required inspection dates is unconscionable.
Now that we're seeing safety coming before convenience, do you think it will stay that way?
Safety should always be valued first. In the years before September 11, aircraft were routinely pulled out of service for different checks. That's one of the reasons the airlines had extra aircraft to bring into service while others were undergoing a D-check, which is an entire maintenance overhaul. So airlines knew they had to have airlines in reserve to cover their responsibilities to air travelers. But after September 11, the domestic airlines retired some 20 percent of their fleet. And then the period of bankruptcy took even more aircraft out of service. So their margin of capacity is very thin. Their load factor is very high, their yield is very high. But when they have to conduct maintenance that means sometimes having to pull aircraft out of service. That is a fleet management issue for the airlines.
You're saying that the brunt of this falls on them, the airlines. What measures would constitute a vast improvement?
They have to do a vastly better job of scheduling their aircraft for maintenance so that work can be done without inconveniencing the traveling public. It's now reached a crisis point beyond the inspection dates that they've had to take large numbers of aircraft out of service in order to conduct the inspections that should have been done on a routine basis.