• The San Juan Daily Star

Watchdog criticizes FAA’s oversight of American Airlines

By Niraj Chokshi

A government watchdog said late last week that the Federal Aviation Administration had failed to provide sufficient oversight of aircraft maintenance by American Airlines.

The inspector general of the Transportation Department said in a report that it had found dozens of examples of the FAA taking American’s explanation for maintenance lapses at face value, accepting flawed analyses and sometimes even closing cases before the airline had addressed problems.

The findings echo criticism the agency has faced since two Boeing 737 Max planes crashed in late 2018 and early 2019, killing a total of 346 people and spawning numerous investigations. In particular, the FAA has been accused of relying too heavily on Boeing and airline employees to carry out some oversight functions that it doesn’t have the resources to fully conduct on its own.

The inspector general found that American inadequately identified the root cause of maintenance lapses in 92% of 185 cases reviewed at random. FAA inspectors are responsible for working with airlines on such investigations to ensure that such problems are accurately identified and investigated to prevent them in the future.

In 50 of those cases, American never identified a root cause of the maintenance lapses. In one instance, for example, the airline never explained why aircraft parts were found on top of a recycling bin without any indication of whether they were usable.

In the remaining 121 cases, American blamed human error, which the FAA itself has said is an insufficient explanation, according to the report. In one case, mechanics overlooked a maintenance step while working on a cabin door and American simply reported that it was a supervisor’s fault for failing to catch it. In another, a mechanic signed off on a series of maintenance steps that weren’t required for a given repair, with American reporting that he provided no explanation for the mistake. The FAA never pushed for more information, the report found.

The agency had discovered some of the issues identified in Friday’s report on its own. “The FAA agrees with many of the recommendations in the report and is taking steps to address them,” it said in a statement.

The FAA said it agreed outright with five of the seven recommendations the inspector general laid out in the report, including improved training for its inspectors and improving processes to avoid closing cases before they have been fully resolved. The agency said it partly agreed with the other two recommendations — that it require airlines to provide written analyses and that it improve its data collection tool to let inspectors carry out more detailed reviews.

In a statement, American said it welcomed the report.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers and team members,” the airline said. “In addition to the FAA, we are in constant communication with other regulators and welcome their review and feedback.”

The inspector general started the review in May 2018 at the request of lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The lawmakers also asked the inspector general to look into the agency’s oversight of Allegiant Air, a review that reached a similar conclusion in 2019.

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