FAA's own fleet has safety record that would get an airline grounded


WASHINGTON -- The pilots flew recklessly.

The planes were missing crucial safety equipment.

Virtually every federal flying rule was ignored.

It would be the picture of a terrible airline. But, amazingly, it's a description of the flight operations of the Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency responsible for ensuring the safety of U.S. air carriers.

In a little-noticed report, federal safety investigators have charged the FAA with a list of infractions that would scare any passenger, including:

* There were no approved manuals for flight operations, maintenance procedures or training programs.

* One pilot -- who died last year when he struck a mountain near Front Royal, Va., while flying in poor weather without flight instruments -- communicated to his co-pilots with cryptic hand signals and yet received glowing evaluations from his superiors.

* In a cost-cutting move, cockpit voice recorders weren't installed, and many planes were missing devices that warn pilots if they are flying too close to the ground.

With a fleet of 53 planes and about 1,000 pilots, the FAA runs an operation the size of a medium-size airline. Many flights are to inspect airports and other facilities. But investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency, found that the FAA's flight operations were spread across the agency's bureaucracy in five areas, with little accountability, unqualified managers and poor safety oversight.

"The lack of formalized procedures, the lack of formalized training requirements, the refusal to deal with known personnel problems would be the kind of things that would ground a program," said Jim Burnett, a former chairman of the safety board who reviewed what he called the "shocking" report at Newsday's request. "But this program is in the hands of the people who have the authority to ground an airline. An organization that is supposed to be the enforcer of air safety should be the paragon of it."

The FAA has pledged to improve its performance and overhaul its operations in the wake of the critique. Ed Fell, an FAA official who describes himself as the chief executive of the new FAA "airline," said flight operations henceforth will meet or exceed the standards required for commuter carriers, which are not as stringent as those for big airlines.

But some government officials are skeptical that the FAA will do more than make superficial changes. Government documents show that, in the past nine years, several internal probes by the FAA had pinpointed many of the problems cited in the new report, but that few changes were made.

A 1989 inspection team, formed after an FAA jet crashed partly because the pilots had been drinking heavily the previous night, found many of the problems the safety board found. Inspectors that year concluded that the pilots and co-pilots failed to use check lists or conduct departure briefings, didn't know how to properly use the equipment in aircraft and ignored flight manuals.

Yet officials at the FAA's division of Aviation System Standards, which oversees FAA flight operations, repeatedly resisted recommendations for tougher oversight while senior FAA executives failed to intercede, the documents show. Four days before the 1993 Virginia crash, one frustrated official in an FAA safety office wrote a memo to his superiors recounting how safety initiatives had been stalled, rejected or haggled to death.

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