It's still true that flying is the safest mode of transportation. We've already noted the heartening statistic regarding fatal crashes; add to that a continuing decline in serious runway incursions (near-misses between planes).
On the safety front, the most significant issue is maintenance, and the FAA's oversight of it. Last December, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in January 2000 was due to inadequate maintenance. The airline had delayed lubricating the plane's screw-jack system, a decision that caused the in-flight horizontal stabilizer to fail. The airline had received permission from the FAA to postpone the work; if it had adhered to the schedule, crews almost certainly would have discovered the screw jacks' worn threads.
Last year, we highlighted the special audits sparked by the Alaska Airlines crash. Those investigations focused on how airlines managed their safety programs. Auditors found weak programs at several major carriers. But it's unclear how much progress the airlines have made, because the FAA does notplan to conduct follow-up audits, citing a lack of need. "Given the economic state of the airlines, we are always vigilant in overseeing their activities," says FAA spokesman Les Dorr, referring to the agency's routine checks of maintenance centers. At press time, the FAA had put three (undisclosed) carriers under surveillance for maintenance and operational matters.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General (DOT OIG), which oversees the FAA, has been studying the ways in which airlines conduct their maintenance. To save money, carriers are increasingly subcontracting work to third parties, which are not monitored closely by the FAA. According to findings issued this July by the DOT OIG, in 1996 the major carriers outsourced $1.5 billion, or 37 percent, of their total aircraft maintenance. In 2002, they outsourced $2.5 billion, or 47 percent, of their total maintenance costs. In a report issued in July, the DOT OIG called for the FAA to improve its oversight of maintenance, including more inspections and enhanced reviews of repair stations.
GRADE: B FEEDBACK Performance has been good, but we believe the FAA should be conducting more big-picture audits of maintenance programs. The FAA and the airlines must determine whether outsourcing increases risks and take action accordingly.
HONOR ROLL Gail Dunham
As head of the National Air Disaster Alliance, Dunham has worked tirelessly to improve aviation safety and security.