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]
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