Do Safety Inspectors And Airlines Have A Dangerous Conflict Of Interest?

BusinessWeek has an article that shines some light on a conflict of interest between the airlines and the FAA safety inspectors. It’s the inspector’s job to make sure the airlines are operating safely—but inspectors who blow the whistle may face pressure from the airlines and retaliation from the FAA’s upper management

The inspectors are the on-the-ground cops who ensure that engines fire up properly, that the wing flaps function, and that all of the other complex machinery in an aircraft is in good working order. They have broad discretion to halt and delay flights–power that often rankles the thinly stretched, financially strapped carriers. When an inspector launches a formal investigation into an apparent safety violation at a passenger airline, something that happened more than 200 times last year, it often triggers costly repairs. And when the bill exceeds $50,000, the FAA must issue a press release alerting the world to the problem.

The airlines sometimes fight back. Executives meet constantly with local FAA officials on a wide variety of issues and occasionally lodge informal complaints against tough inspectors. From time to time, the carriers bring their concerns directly to the agency’s top official: the FAA administrator. “If the airline feels uncomfortable, management will call the FAA administrator,” says Linda Goodrich, a former inspector who is now vice-president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS) union, which represents inspectors and played no role in Lund’s dispute with the agency. “The FAA administrator will immediately demand to know what we are doing to them. You can imagine an inspector trying to do his work when his local management is so fearful of the airline.”

Several safety inspectors told BusinessWeek that they had also experienced or witnessed retaliation. (Most of the safety inspectors interviewed by BusinessWeek did not want to be identified by name in this article for that reason.)

The article details the case of one inspector, Mark Lund, who claims he was given a desk job as punishment for pointing out serious safety problems at Northwest Airlines during the 2005 mechanics strike.

On Aug. 21 Lund worked late into the night drafting a nine-page memo that described his observations of 10 separate maintenance mistakes. Besides advocating a cutback in Northwest’s flight schedule, he proposed upgrading its mechanic-training program and increasing FAA surveillance of the carrier. The next day, Lund says, his direct supervisor got a call from a higher-level manager ordering Lund to be barred from inspecting Northwest planes. Then the carrier fired off the letter of complaint against Lund, according to the IG report. It said Northwest “would no longer permit [Lund] to have unescorted access to Northwest facilities.” In response, the FAA decided to stop him from conducting on-site inspections altogether

Scary.

Airline Safety: A Whistleblower’s Tale [BusinessWeek]
(Photo:ZonaPhoto)

Comments

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  1. HRHKingFriday says:

    Whatevs, in a year or so noone will be able to afford airline tickets anyways.

  2. trujunglist says:

    Typical of the FAA and echoes the statements I made in the posting where the guy was mad at the FAA for allowing a new approach route over his house. The FAA is supposed to watch out for the general public AND “promote” the air industry at the same time?

  3. Buran says:

    Heaven forbid safety trump profit! They’ll even go in pursuit of profit if it means people die — e.g. the AA DC-10 engine-loss-at-takeoff crash caused by shoddy maintenance procedures designed to save money. And they’ll hide it for as long as they can to avoid paying damages on top of continuing to be cheap even though they know it puts lives at risk.

    As soon as I’m living with my bf, no more flying for me unless there’s no other choice.

  4. Jaysyn was banned for: http://consumerist.com/5032912/the-subprime-meltdown-will-be-nothing-compared-to-the-prime-meltdown#c7042646 says:

    I used to have an aquaintence who was a mechanic for a major commercial airline. I stopped flying shortly after he clued me in to some of their repair methods.

    My favorite quote from him:
    “Oh yeah man, if we lose or can’t make a rivet fit when we are putting the skin back on (the airframe), we’ll just use epoxy to get it to stay flush.”

    I’ll never forget that as long as I live.

  5. UX4themasses says:

    From IMDB, Fight Club:

    “A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.”

  6. picardia says:

    Deep, deep, deep airline hate. I fly about four times a year, and I hate it every time because of stupid stuff like this.

  7. grouse says:
  8. axiomatic says:

    “Suits” fuck up everything.

  9. Bourque77 says:

    So they ignore safety concerns because the airlines complain about tough inspectors? Nice, guess it saves money.

  10. starrion says:

    Well obviously the safety is completely screwed up. Look at all the planes falling out of the skies over the USA. This morning my wife and I had to swerve to avoid getting hit by a 737 that had the engines fall off, and a 747 hit the house next door yesterday.

    Please.

    Since the accident in 11/01 in NY, a total of 99 people have lost their lives in a half-dozen commercial aviation accidents. Hundreds of millions of passenger boardings and over six years of commercial flights – and that’s it.

    How about maybe, just maybe, a disgruntled (they’re always disgruntled) inspector didn’t like the way NWA was treating his mechanic friends in the union and decided that he would write up everything he could find.

  11. Buran says:

    @UX4themasses: They’re not making that up. Wish they were.

  12. spinachdip says:

    @starrion: While I’m always up for bashing conflicts of interest and corporate whining, I’m agree with this.

    Whatever you think of the safety standards, commercial air travel is, by a country mile, the safest way to get from city to city. Safer than driving, rail or, I assume, submarine.

    The ugly truth that people either won’t admit for fear of bad PR or refuse to believe because life=priceless has been so ingrained, is that you can put a price on lives. There is a way to make a plane that’s completely crash-proof, but the cost would be prohibitive and it just wouldn’t work as a business. So you have to decide, how much loss of lives is acceptable?

    And as absurd as the aforementioned Fight Club quote may seem, it’s pretty reasonable. If you’re running a business that involves an appreciable level of risk, you have to be able to put a price on human life.

  13. Adam Hyland says:

    @spinachdip: Submarines are safer.

    And this isn’t about the company’s choice of the value for human life. That is up to them and their insurance company. They can determine the value, insure against it and not worry about it.

    This is about a company being able to force a regulator to not do his job. The reason air travel is safe is because we CONSTANTLY learn from mistakes, we CONSTANTLY enforce maintenance standards and we CONSTANTLY require only vetted designs in the air.

    When that stops happeneing, people die. It’s that simple.

  14. rioja951 - Why, oh why must I be assigned to the vehicle maintenance when my specialty is demolitions? says:

    To any body that cares:

    If you have military background, specially as an officer, acceptable losses is something you are trained to asses.

    That means to guesstimate how many men, equipment and supplies will be damaged and/or lost while in transport or in theater. They higher up you go the prettier is is printed out. Every thing has a price, and trust me lately the price on a trooper has fallen like a rock.

    Sad but true. (And it applies to any business, esp. as a corporation)

  15. antisocial says:

    lol “N.W.A.”

  16. mjgolds says:

    And this is why I like flying QANTAS how many airlines can brag they have never lost a jet :) from memory the only aircraft they lost were operated for the military during WW2, given the loss rate, enemy aircraft and general failure rates of the time not too shabby :)