Recent revelations about the FAA and Southwest Airlines (you may be free to move about the country, but at your own risk), and further inspection shenanigans highlight what we already knew but were too focused on getting through security without contracting athletes' foot to notice: The FAA as a regulatory agency is about as reliable as the old man in the exit row.
And it's not just inspectors cozy with airline execs; the regulatory system was outsourced years ago, to the aviation industry, leading to a dangerous lack of oversight and conflicts of interest, in short, trouble waiting to happen.
(NTSB warning that inspections are "on a slippery slope" after the jump.)
Two years ago, in a Mother Jones investigative report, Frank Koughan and Jim Morris detailed the systematic gutting of air safety inspections by the FAA. They reported how, back in 2005,
Cash-short airlines increased their outsourcing of maintenance, creating an extra layer for overworked inspectors to penetrate. At the same time, the FAA's Office of Aviation Safety, facing a $30 million shortfall, shed more than 250 inspectors and is itself outsourcing safety functions long performed by the government. The agency transferred operation of 58 flight service stationswhich relay weather and navigational information to small-aircraft pilotsto Lockheed Martin. Thirty-eight of the stations are to be closed and the FAA decreed that manufacturers like Boeing soon would be able to approve their own designs and modifications, a concession the industry had been seeking for years. Self-policing "puts us on a slippery slope," warned Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). "The primary reason we've been able to build such a safe system is the structure we've had in place for years. The ultimate responsible party for safety is the government, and this new FAA policy essentially is trying to transfer that responsibility. It may work in the short term, but in the long term the public will see that what we have is a less safe system."
And here we are years later. Less safe, indeed.
Of note, after the original story broke, the FAA threatened to fire the safety inspector who spoke with Mother Jones and he was put on administrative leave. (He was reinstated after 10 months.) You can read more about the FAA's crackdown on this whistleblower, and listen to his interview with Frank Koughan at Phoenix' TIMCO repair station, here.