Decision Disputed Allowing Airline to Operate With Unapproved Parts

It is not a good thing for its credibility when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) releases a four paragraph press release and a public interest group responds with more questions (7) and more comments (2 pages) questioning the rationale for the agency’s permissiveness. One suspects here another example of the FAA’s customer service initiative at work. (See Aviation Safety Journal, ‘Ruptured Southwest B737 Fuselage Being Investigated by Safety Board,’ ‘FAA Whistleblowers Demand Safety Reform’ and ‘The Associate Administrator’s Leaky Legacy’)

Under the customer service initiative, the FAA vows to treat its favored manufacturers and airlines with a “partnership” attitude, not the arms-length, impartial treatment of a regulator. Note that the customer service initiative (CSI) does not involve airline passengers. Under the FAA’s concept, passengers don’t count. Herewith, some of the FAA’s announced “Customer Service Principles” from its website:

“As our customer, you can expect from us:

— Fair and careful consideration of your issue.

— Clear guidance on how you can elevate your concerns to the next higher level of authority.

“We ask our customers to:

— Understand that the FAA’s first priority is safety.

— Display the same level of professionalism with which you wish to be treated.

“We share the responsibility to work together …”

All very chummy and clubby.

Congress has finally raised a few questions about CSI. But first, the rebuke of the FAA’s press release. Here’s what the FAA put out:

FAA Approves Plan for Southwest Airlines to Replace Unapproved Parts

1 September 2009 — The FAA today approved a plan that would require Southwest Airlines to replace unapproved parts installed on about 50 B737 airplanes and for these aircraft to undergo inspections until fixes are made. The airline already has replaced parts on 30 other planes.

An FAA technical review [not released for public scrutiny, we should note] has determined that the unapproved part would not prevent safe operation of the airplanes. The aircraft manufacturer has made a similar determination. As a result, the FAA has determined that the airline may continue to operate aircraft with the unapproved part until the parts can be replaced, on the condition that each plane must be physically inspected for wear and tear every seven days and the affected parts must all be replaced with an approved part by 24 December 2009.

The FAA has also directed Southwest Airlines to locate and dispose of any other unapproved parts made by the same vendor and to report on the results of its aircraft inspections to the FAA on a daily basis.

The unapproved parts are associated with the hinge fittings for the exhaust gate assembly, which help protect the aircraft flaps from engine heat. The FAA determined on 21 August that the parts had been installed on a number [not specified] of Southwest Airlines planes. The FAA has opened an investigation into this issue [no indication of when the inquiry will be completed or if it will be made available to the public].

It is important to note that this announcement comes hard on the heels of a $7.5 million fine (negotiated down from $10 million) levied on Southwest for hundreds of flights without conducting required structural inspections, and it comes after Congressional hearings into FAA oversight of Southwest and American Airlines that frankly left a lot of egg on the FAA’s institutional face. Note that the aircraft in question are to be subject to weekly inspections with reports to the FAA. So amidst all the good news about the FAA’s customer-friendly oversight, the airplanes in question have to be inspected frequently until new parts are installed some four months hence. And this action is taken on the basis of a technical review that has not been released and whose independence may be suspect.

A day after the FAA’s more-questions-than-it-answers announcement, the Business Travel Coalition responded with a stinging press release. The Coalition, by the way, describes its mission as “to bring transparency to industry and government policies and practices so that customers can influence issues of strategic importance to them.”

Here’s what the Business Travel Coalition had to say:

FAA Decision To Not Ground Southwest

Airlines’ Aircraft Raises Serious Questions

Agency’s True Customers Have a Right to Answers

2 September 2009, Radnor, PA – Business Travel Coalition (BTC) today released the following statement regarding the FAA’s decision to allow Southwest Airlines to continue to fly Boeing 737s with illegal parts until the end of 2009.

STATEMENT

FAA’s announcement yesterday that Southwest Airlines may continue to fly aircraft until 24 December 2009 with unapproved parts raises more questions than it answers and once again undermines confidence that FAA acts as a true regulatory agency. Only by following established and long-standing protocols will the integrity of the safety system be maintained, a necessary condition for regaining the confidence of the flying public after the mishaps of 2008.*

FAA Logic

FAA said in its statement yesterday that its technical review “determined that the unapproved part would not prevent safe operation of the airplanes,” however, FAA goes on to say that “each plane must be physically inspected for wear and tear every seven days.” FAA’s logic is difficult to comprehend. Is this a part that if it fails it would not be a safety issue? If this is the case, why inspect the part every seven days? If on the other hand a failed part would cause a safety issue, why are these airplanes still flying? The FAA statement was dead silent on the question of whether a failure of the part would have an impact on the safety of flight. However, someone at the FAA must have been concerned enough to make weekly inspections a condition in the agency’s agreement with Southwest.

FAA needs to understand who its customer is. FAA rules were created to ensure significant margins of safety for the flying public. Under the current administration, BTC was hopeful that FAA would change direction from treating the airlines as customers to focusing on the safety and security of passengers.

Questions For Which The Public Deserves Answers

1. Are there any safety implications associated with this part?

2. Can FAA unequivocally state that a failure of this part would have no impact on the safety of flight? If there were an accident caused directly or indirectly by this unapproved part, who will be accountable, FAA or Southwest Airlines?

3. If there are no safety implications associated with this part, why have a certification process that disallows flying with unapproved parts in the first place? Are not such protocols in place to guard against subjective FAA judgments? What is the difference in principle between this case and when American Airlines was forced to ground over half its fleet in 2008 over wire shields?

4. If a part is found to have failed, will FAA ground the aircraft in question?

5. Will Southwest be held accountable for not having a failsafe process in place to monitor this aircraft maintenance outsourcing program wherein over a three-year period 80 Southwest aircraft were fitted with unapproved parts?

6. Will FAA investigate Southwest’s overall policies, practices and processes for overseeing aircraft maintenance outsourcing now that a deep flaw in the airline’s program has been discovered?

7. Will this precedent allow other airlines to violate long-standing and routine airworthiness regulations with an expectation that the FAA will be permissive? Will smaller carriers with less clout and fewer flights be afforded the same deals?

The Associated Press reports that, “Southwest had lobbied for more time to fix the problem. The airline argued that the parts in question, which deflect hot engine exhaust away from control flaps on the wings, were scarce. Now it will get nearly four months to find replacement parts.”

If these parts are so scarce, and mission-critical, why did Southwest not have a verification process in place to mitigate the risk that twenty percent of its fleet could be taken out of service? More importantly, does Southwest’s successful lobbying efforts point to a still too-cozy relationship with an FAA that continues to consider airlines as its true customer? This is a very disturbing development in light of the strong message Congress sent to FAA last year stating clearly that the travelling public is FAA’s only customer.

* Just last year the bright light of Congressional hearings uncovered a too-cozy relationship between FAA and Southwest. The public lost confidence in the leadership of the FAA as a consequence of the shredding of FAA documents, removing of FAA inspectors at the request of airlines, allowing Southwest to fly aircraft 60,000 flights while out of compliance, collaborating with the airlines in abusing the Voluntary Disclosure Program, ignoring U.S. DOT Inspector General recommendations, leaving open 400 NTSB recommendations, failing to take responsibility at FAA headquarters for systemic failures and misleading Congress under oath.

Altogether, a considerably more probing press release than the glib happy talk contained in the FAA’ announcement authorizing flying with unapproved parts.

It’s important to note that the agency’s chamois-soft handling of Southwest was announced shortly after Randy Babbitt was appointed the new FAA administrator. His ascension to the office 1 June was hallmarked with words like “a new day” at the FAA, and subsequent words from Babbitt, such as these, uttered to the International Association Machinists convention 19 August: “We take our role as a federal regulator very seriously. At the FAA, we’ve got a saying that if it’s not safe, it doesn’t fly.”

Since unapproved parts don’t meet the test of safety, the decision to allow Southwest to keep flying with them is all the more suspect. Babbitt could also void the FAA’s industry-comforting customer service initiative, still on the agency’s website. That can be done in a day, and Babbitt has been in office more than 100 days now.

In its “FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009” (H.R. 915), yet to be enacted, Congress has directed the FAA to modify its customer service initiative:

“(1) To remove any reference to air carriers or other entities regulated by the Agency as ‘customers’;

(2) To clarify that in regulating safety the only customers of the Agency are individuals travelling in aircraft; and

(3) To clarify that air carriers and other entities regulated by the Agency do not have the right to select the employees of the Agency who will inspect their operations.

SAFETY PRIORITY – In carrying out the Administrators responsibilities, the Administrator shall ensure that safety is given a higher priority than preventing the dissatisfaction of an air carrier or other entity regulated by the Agency …”

Nice words, but weak. Congress could direct Babbitt to do what he has not: scrap the customer service initiative altogether. There is plenty of extant legislative guidance regarding the FAA’s mission to regulate and maintain safety. As evidenced by the FAA approving Southwest to fly with unapproved parts, the much-ballyhoo’d “new day” has not arrived at the FAA. Rather, it looks like the incestuous business as usual that has dismayed the public and led to no-confidence rejoinders like the one declared by the Business Travel Coalition.