WASHINGTON -- Under fire for lapses in oversight of airline safety, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration defended yesterday its close cooperation with airlines.
Acting Administrator Robert A. Sturgell, apologizing to passengers stranded by recent flight cancellations after airlines had to catch up on overdue jet inspections and make needed repairs, cautioned a Senate subcommittee against overreacting to concerns about the FAA's reliance on voluntary policing by airlines.
Criticism of the Air Transportation Oversight System has grown since whistleblowers described a host of safety lapses during a recent House committee hearing.
Sturgell, whose confirmation as administrator is being held up in the Senate, responded to critics in his first appearance before Congress since the revelations by pointing out that compliance with the program is close to 99 percent.
"Those who push to abandon partnership and voluntary disclosure programs, I believe, are shortsighted," he said.
Sturgell's testimony, however, came as the Transportation Department's inspector general issued a scathing report on the failure of inspectors to review Southwest Airlines' system for compliance. As of Tuesday, four "key" FAA inspections remain overdue at the airline.
"The balance tipped too heavily in favor of collaboration at the expense of effective oversight and appropriate enforcement," said Inspector General Calvin Scovel III.
Sturgell said a team has nearly finished the final Southwest inspections.
Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs a transportation subcommittee, said that the FAA "has been inconsistent and erratic."
"It's obvious that the senior management has to be held responsible for slipshod leadership," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat.
Scovel made seven recommendations to improve oversight, including rotating FAA inspections supervisors so they do not become attached to the airline they are monitoring.
Sturgell said uprooting supervisors would be costly and could undermine institutional memory.
Sturgell embraced one of the inspector general's recommendations, announcing that the FAA would soon require a "cooling off" period to prevent employees who go to work at an airline from conducting business with former colleagues. When the FAA hires inspectors from an airline, they are allowed only limited interaction with their previous employer for the first two years on the job, but inspectors leaving the FAA have not been restricted.
Sturgell said airlines should be responsible for doing their own quality control.
"If we return to a 'gotcha' approach of decades past, when there were signs in the hangars 'Don't talk with the FAA,' I think we risk driving safety underground," he said. "Hidden data obscures trends. Undiscovered trends are a precursor to accidents. Silence breeds catastrophe. I'm not willing to accept that."
The hearing was on the agency's budget request for next year. The subcommittee has provided more funds for safety oversight than the Bush administration requested in four of the past seven years, Murray said.
In his report, Scovel also warned of pending mass retirements of controllers and inspectors. Sturgell said the FAA planned to hire 1,800 air traffic controllers next year, a net gain of about 300.
Murray told Sturgell she has no confidence that he will follow through on promises to improve safety and oversight.
"We are trying to do the right thing," Sturgell said.
James Hohmann writes for the Los Angeles Times.