FAA to check safety compliance at all U.S. airlines


WASHINGTON – U.S. aviation inspectors were ordered on Tuesday to review maintenance records at all domestic airlines to ensure carriers have complied with safety orders and other directives.

The unprecedented but one-time step by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stems from alleged oversight lapses at Southwest Airlines that led the agency to propose a record fine of $10.2 million on March 6.

Over the next three months, the FAA wants a snapshot of safety compliance with an array of safety directives issued over the years that required inspections or other maintenance work.

Regulators do not suspect there are problems at other carriers similar to the ones uncovered at Southwest, but believe a broader review is merited as a precaution.

“One carrier’s noncompliance with (safety directives) makes it necessary for us to validate our system for overseeing your management of this regulatory requirement,” FAA safety chief Nicholas Sabatini said in an e-mail to airlines.

Southwest allegedly missed deadlines to inspect 46 Boeing Co 737 aircraft for structural flaws in 2006-07, and flew those planes after alerting the FAA about the oversight but before it completed the checks. Small fuselage cracks were found on six planes and fixed.

Southwest subsequently launched an internal review of its records and found another lapsed inspection for fuselage cracks. It immediately grounded 38 planes last week. Four were found to have cracks, the airline said.

The FAA action announced on Tuesday will require airlines with older 737s, like some of the aircraft flown by Southwest, to produce inspection records for structural cracks. Other than the 737 mandate, FAA inspectors are free to select which directives to review at each airline.

The agency wants an initial report from the field by the end of the month and a more complete set of findings by the end of June. The goal is for inspectors to eventually cover compliance rates for 10 percent of the U.S. fleet.

Congress has in recent weeks been sharply critical of FAA oversight and is planning hearings next month. The House of Representatives Transportation Committee, which triggered the investigation of Southwest that led to the fine, is now looking into the potential for similar problems at other airlines.