The Inspector General has released a report raising concerns that safety regulators fail to ensure that American Airlines identifies the causes of maintenance problems. The audit says the airline flew planes in “unairworthy” condition, including one that flew with a broken emergency slide for well over two years before informing regulators.
The Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General exists to rectify inefficient or unlawful practices in the department’s programs and administrations. One of its latest reports zeroes in on the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of American Airlines’ aircraft maintenance. The report minces no words when it says right in its title that the FAA lacks good enough oversight to determine whether American Airlines appropriately identifies, assesses and mitigates aircraft maintenance risks.
The FAA requires airlines to use the Safety Management System (SMS) to determine the risk associated with maintenance non-compliance to fix issues before they become hazards.
One of the issues documented in the report was an aircraft that flew for 877 days in unairworthy condition with a broken emergency evacuation slide before being reported to the FAA. Another issue was a plane that flew 1,002 cycles in unairworthy condition due to missing engine bushings and an improper engine mount strut installation.
The report says that American gave the broken slide a “moderate” risk rating and didn’t perform a risk assessment at all for the latter issue. The FAA has 60 inspectors monitoring American’s maintenance operations and as the report notes, the inspectors were so poorly trained that they could not evaluate whether American’s risk ratings appropriately described the actual risk level.
OIG went further, describing that in 171 of 185 of maintenance compliance cases that it examined, FAA inspectors took American’s word and accepted root cause analyses that either didn’t find a root cause at all or simply blamed a problem on human factors.
The OIG reviewed 394 corrective actions proposed by the airline and found that the inspectors accepted all of them, including 20 actions that closed before American even fixed the problems.
OIG explains that in addition to poor inspector training, another problem is how the FAA makes sure airlines are fixing problems, from AP:
In 2015, the FAA shifted its method of ensuring safety from enforcement to working cooperatively with airlines. In that time, the number of enforcement actions against American dropped from 572 to 31. Incidents that were previously treated as enforcement matters were routinely classified as “compliance actions,” in which the airline agrees to make changes.
The OIG’s recommendations fall on the FAA and encourage the regulator to train inspectors, ensure those inspectors require written root cause analyses and make sure inspectors don’t close out cases before corrective actions have been taken.
As reported by the AP, an FAA spokeswoman says that the administration agrees with many of the recommendations in the report and is taking steps to address them. American says that it plans on working with regulators to improve its safety controls.
I want to reiterate that flying is still one of the safest ways to travel. I have flown American this year and will happily board an American flight again. The OIG report itself recognizes this when it notes that American Airlines is one of the world’s largest carriers and hasn’t had a fatal incident since 2001.