With the airlines burdened by massive losses, the FAA is currently facing the daunting task of making sure they don't take safety shortcuts—unwitting or otherwise. In theory, the agency should be up to the task: now that the TSA oversees security, safety is the FAA's chief responsibility. Yet, in a mirror image of pre—September 11 security procedures, the FAA actually reliesProgress Report:airlines themselves to maintain their fleets.
At press time, the FAA was awaiting confirmation of a new top administrator, Marion Blakely, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. For her agency, the lesson of 9/11 looms large: should the FAA be doing more to ensure that flying remains safe?
There is a bright spot on the safety front: incursions—generally, near misses on the ground between planes or a plane and another object—dropped in 2001, the first decline in several years. By 2000, incursions had hit record levels, 431 by the FAA's count, up 110 percent from 1999. The main reason: air-traffic volume had never been higher, and many airports were handling more planes than they were designed to during peak hours. Worldwide, incursions are one of the top five causes of aviation fatalities, and many observers considered it a miracle that there hadn't been a major runway accident in the U.S. in recent years.
To help counter the problem, the FAA developed new early-warning technology to monitor runway traffic: the Airport Movement Area Safety Systems (amass). As of July, 24 airports around the country had it, including most of the big hubs. This summer, Denver was scheduled to start using it, followed by Dallas this month.
Given the correlation between air-traffic volume and runway incursions, it was no surprise that runway incursions fell last year, to 381. However, as traffic began to increase during the first three months of 2002, the trend continued: the FAA logged 62 incursions, compared with 96 during the same (but still busier) period a year earlier. Although we won't know how effective amass is until air-traffic volume returns to pre-9/11 levels, it appears to be making a difference.
"Controlled flight into terrain"—that is, a collision between a plane and the earth, usually mountains near an airport—is a leading cause of aviation fatalities worldwide. Midair collisions, though infrequent, are also responsible for some of the worst aviation disasters. Although the problem is less severe in the United States because of our more sophisticated air-traffic control system, accidents could still occur.
Since 1995, all commercial planes in this country have been equipped with the Traffic Collision & Avoidance System (TCAS), which essentially "talks" to other planeb+Progress Report:s to prevent midair collisions. According to reports at press time, the TCAS in the Russian passenger jet that collided with a DHL cargo plane over Germany in July had ins—d the jet's pilots to ascend to avoid a crash. But an air-traffic controller contradicted the TCAS instruction, and the jet descended, colliding with the other plane. Had the pilots relied on TCAS, the tragedy might have been avoided.
Another early-warning technology, the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (egpws), is credited with averting as many as 20 disasters involving aircraft crashing into terrain over the past five years. Last January, egpws prevented an Alaska Airlines plane that was approaching Tucson airport from hitting the Santa Catalina Mountains. (In contrast, neither the Air China plane that crashed into mountains outside Pusan, Korea, in April nor the EgyptAir jet that hit a hillside while landing in Tunis in May had egpws.) An enhanced version of egpws is required on all new planes in this country as of this year; older planes must be retrofitted with the latest version by 2005.
Two years ago, after the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 off the California coast, an FAA audit revealed that the airline's internal safety program was all but broken. Amazingly, the FAA hadn't inspected the carrier for safety in two years. The agency uncovered repair delays, insufficient parts testing, and inadequate quality control.
Concerned that these problems might exist industry-wide, the FAA conducted complete safety audits at nine top airlines. Its report, released in March 2001, cited only one, AmericaWest, as having an "inadequate" maintenance program, though American also had significant weaknesses. The airlines audited say they have made improvements, which may well be true, since the review was conducted in 2000. But there's no clear way to know, since at press time the FAA said it had aoProgress Report:t follow-up inspections.
The agency's ongoing program for monitoring safety, the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), was launched in 1998. ATOS marked a historic shift in the FAA's safety mission—for the first time, it was to begin assessing airline safety data, with the idea of È detecting safety problems before they became widespread or, in a worst-case scenario, led to a crash. Previously, the FAA had concentrated on spot-check inspections that revealed existing violations.
At a congressional hearing this spring, the DOT IG's office nevertheless faulted the FAA for its safety oversight. Among the IG's findings: the FAA's data analysis is spotty at best, and, what's more, the agency's inspectors aren't being adequately trained (71 percent interviewed by the IG's office complained of incomplete training). The FAA says it is currently analyzing the quality of the program.