FAA oversight of American Airlines is flawed, watchdog says

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In one case, American flew a plane with a broken emergency-evacuation slide for nearly three years.

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A government watchdog said Friday that federal safety regulators routinely fail to ensure that American Airlines finds maintenance deficiencies when they are discovered.

The Department of Transportation Inspector General said that in some cases, the Federal Aviation Administration closed compliance cases before the US took steps to fix the problem.

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The report raised questions about the FAA’s policy of relying on airline “safety management systems” to find and fix issues before they become a threat.

In one case, American flew a plane with a broken emergency-evacuation slide for nearly three years before telling the FAA.

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In another, no risk assessment was performed for an aircraft that had engine bushings and improperly installed struts holding the engines. According to the report, the plane made 1,002 flights “in unfit condition”.

An FAA spokesman said the agency “agree with many of the recommendations in the report and is taking steps to address them.”

American said it is proud of its safety record and remains in constant contact with regulators, including the FAA, and welcomes their feedback.

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“This has always been our vision: open, transparent communication and collaboration with our regulators and immediate action to address issues and ensure the continued safety of our airline and industry,” an airline spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We plan to work with the FAA to ensure that we take affirmative action and to continually refine and improve our safety controls.”

The inspector general’s office said that in 171 of the 185 cases, FAA inspectors took the American word and accepted an airline analysis “that did not identify the true root cause of the problem.” In about two dozen cases, the FAA closed compliance cases before the US could fix the problems, the report said.

The report also noted that the FAA did not train inspectors to determine whether the US safety management system is effective. They are top-down systems that are supposed to help identify and fix potential security problems. The FAA required airlines to adopt such systems in 2018.

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American has approximately 9,000 certified mechanics and aircraft inspectors at stations in the US and around the world, with its largest maintenance base in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The FAA has about 60 inspectors in Texas and Pennsylvania to oversee US maintenance facilities. That ratio means the FAA relies heavily on an airline’s safety-management system to prevent unsafe planes from flying.

In 2015, the FAA shifted from implementing its own method of ensuring safety to working closely with airlines. In that time, the number of enforcement actions against the US decreased from 572 to 31. Events that were previously treated as enforcement matters were routinely classified as “compliance actions” in which the airline agrees to make changes.

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American has not had a fatal accident since November 2001, but the inspector general said reports of potentially unsafe maintenance practices raised concerns about the airline’s FAA monitoring. In 2018, senior lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee asked the inspector general to review the FAA’s oversight of maintenance issues in the US.


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