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FAA says airlines are no longer its 'customers'

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[September 18, 2009]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- Responding to criticism that his agency has become too cozy with companies it regulates, the new head of the Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday the FAA will stop calling airlines "customers," as he announced steps to ensure air carriers comply with safety orders.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who took over the agency in June, outlined a series of initiatives that address complaints by members of Congress and others that the agency's relationship with airlines was placing the industry's economic interests above passengers' safety.

During the Bush administration, the FAA adopted a business model for evaluating its performance and began calling airlines, aircraft manufacturers and others that it regulates "customers." The new term is "stakeholder."

Babbitt also announced that an internal FAA audit begun last year has concluded that airlines carry out 98 percent of the safety repairs and directives ordered by the agency. He said the audit shows the current system works well, but improvements can be made.


He listed several short-term and long-term actions, including making the agency's engineers available around the clock to support safety inspectors assigned to airlines.

Another initiative is the creation of a new office to handle public safety and whistleblower complaints.

"We have an incredibly safe industry today," Babbitt said. "We're not likely to find one quantum leap ... that's going to take us to another level. Instead we have to find these incremental steps that move us forward."

The FAA suffered several embarrassing episodes in recent years in which airlines didn't follow safety orders or comply with regulations:

  • Southwest Airlines temporarily grounded 46 planes on Aug. 22, the day after an FAA inspector discovered the use of unapproved parts, causing flight delays and some cancellations. A maintenance company hired by Southwest used parts that hadn't been approved on more than 80 of the airline's Boeing jets since 2006. The agency has given Southwest until Dec. 24 to replace the parts.

  • In August 2008, FAA ordered American Airlines to pay a $7.1 million civil penalty, one of the largest ever assessed against an airline, for flying two jets 58 times without making repairs after an FAA inspector and American's own mechanics found problems with their autopilot systems, among other violations.

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  • American, Alaska Airlines and other carriers grounded hundreds of MD-80 aircraft in April 2008, wreaking havoc with air travel schedules. The move came after the FAA found that airlines had not properly complied with a 2006 safety directive to address reports of shorted wires, evidence of worn-down power cables and fuel system reviews conducted by the manufacturer, Boeing Co.

    The FAA audit released Thursday said Boeing first received reports of the problems in 1986. The FAA first proposed a safety directive to remedy the problems in 2003, but the proposal didn't become final until 2006.

  • Southwest Airlines made nearly 60,000 flights in 2006 and 2007 on planes that had missed required examinations for structural cracks and flew them 1,451 times even after being notified of the missed inspections. The agency had ordered airlines in September 2004 to conduct repeat inspections of some areas of the fuselage on some older models of Boeing 737 aircraft.

The FAA is investigating American over structural repairs to its aging fleet of MD-80s. FAA officials have said the investigation centers on repairs to the rear bulkhead of 16 planes.

Improper rear bulkhead repairs were blamed for the 1985 crash of a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 that killed 520 people, still worst accident in aviation history involving a single aircraft.

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, said the steps announced by Babbitt to improve airline compliance "will pave the way for more succinct instructions for incorporating safety directives, less chance for technical ambiguity over compliance and an improved level of safety."

[Associated Press; By JOAN LOWY]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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