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FAA checks on airlines' safety risks held faulty


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The FAA isn't doing enough to keep up with safety risks in an airline industry facing unprecedented changes and financial strain, according to a report yesterday by U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general.

As some airlines experience record financial losses, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to lose about 300 safety inspectors this year because of budget cuts, the report says.

The U.S. aviation system remains the world's safest; there hasn't been a crash of a large passenger plane in more than three years. But the new report says pilots and planes are flying more hours, airlines are cutting costs and FAA inspectors aren't completing all of their planned inspections.

Meanwhile, the U.S. airline industry is in the midst of the worst financial crisis in its history, the result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, high oil prices and fierce competition from low-fare carriers.

The report yesterday focused on the FAA's oversight of financially troubled airlines and low-cost carriers.

At US Airways, one of five financially distressed airlines auditors examined, FAA officials failed to complete 130 planned inspections in fiscal 2003. All were in areas where inspectors had identified risks.

The other four major airlines examined were United, Delta, American and Northwest. All five have suffered record financial losses during the past four years, but the FAA has increased surveillance only at US Airways, United and American, the inspector general's office said.

US Airways and United are operating under bankruptcy protection, and some analysts predict that Delta will file for Chapter 11 by winter. Northwest's chief executive officer said this week that his company might have to file, too.

FAA inspectors found that the stress and fatigue pilots experienced - resulting from longer hours and major pay cuts - might have contributed to an increase in serious incidents at an unidentified airline, the report said. It concluded that the FAA didn't do enough to focus on the risks of rapid growth at some low-cost carriers.

From 2000 to 2003, the report noted, one low-cost carrier substantially increased its fleet size but reduced the number of mechanics it employed. The FAA failed to identify those risks, the report said.

The watchdog office recommended that the FAA improve its processes for identifying safety risks and ensure that it has an adequate number of inspectors.

The FAA, while promising to make changes, disagreed with some of the report's criticisms, and said its oversight system is working well. The report understates the safety improvements made by the FAA and the industry, said agency spokeswoman Alison Duquette.

Inspectors are aware of industry changes and use data to evaluate where safety inspections and improvements are most needed, she said.

Despite repeated cost-cutting by US Airways during two bankruptcy filings, the airline still goes beyond federal safety standards, spokesman David Castelveter said. "There is no cost-cutting initiative that we will take or propose that will compromise safety," he said.

The Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, said airlines have "robust quality assurance programs" and refuse to compromise safety.

Most airlines continue to outsource more maintenance work, the report said. US Airways increased the share of maintenance outsourced to 60 percent in 2004, from 50 percent in 2002, according to the report.

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