Waiting to Happen

With overseas mechanics and overstretched inspectors, FAA oversight of the airlines is an accident...

Mark Fetherolf knows, in excruciating detail, how his 16-year-old daughter, Tara, died. Tara was one of the 229 people on board Swissair Flight 111, which crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia on September 2, 1998. He knows that the Boeing MD-11 caught fire about an hour into the New York-to-Geneva flight and tried to make an emergency landing in Halifax. He knows that the plane struck the water at an approximate speed of 350 mph, causing it, and the people inside, to be shredded into small pieces. And he knows that the faulty installation of an electronic gambling system that is believed to have caused the fire was overseen by a now-defunct California firm called Santa Barbara Aerospace, which was standing in for the Federal Aviation Administration as a so-called designee. This meant the company could certify the work was done to FAA standards.

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What Fetherolf doesn’t know is why the FAA, despite its own apparent misgivings before the accident, allowed Santa Barbara Aerospace to retain its designee status—a setup that amounts to industry self-regulation. His many inquiries proved fruitless, and he was dissatisfied with the FAA’s investigation into the matter. And so, when the 52-year-old software executive recently learned that the agency was about to give the aviation industry even greater freedom to self-regulate, he grew uneasy. “It scares me to death to think about a bunch of these fly-by-night companies being able to put even more distance between themselves and any real regulation,” says Fetherolf, who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “There are just some people in the business who need scrutiny.”

That scrutiny is coming from fewer and fewer FAA inspectors and increasingly from the industry the FAA oversees. In a March 2004 speech, Nick Sabatini, the agency’s associate administrator for regulation and certification, said, “We must evolve from the traditional role of regulator and regulated.” While the FAA “will always be the regulator,” he said, the new mantra was “collaboration.” He reaffirmed the concept at a meeting with FAA employees in January 2005, at which he said the agency “will continue to depend very heavily on designees.”

Sabatini calls it evolution. Others call it abdication. “It’s giving away the farm,” says a veteran FAA inspector, who refused to be identified because he feared losing his job. “I don’t know that we’ve really learned the lesson we should have from Swissair 111.”

 

LAST YEAR, 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. In October, the agency transferred operation of 58 flight service stations—which relay weather and navigational information to small-aircraft pilots—to Lockheed Martin. Thirty-eight of the stations are to be closed. The same month, 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.”

The FAA has never been entirely comfortable with its regulatory role and, in fact, has spent much of its 48-year lifetime promoting the aviation industry. It’s been derided as a “tombstone agency,” inflicting real pain on the industry only after a catastrophe. For all its faults, however, the FAA serves a purpose: It is charged with policing aviation, from the smallest propeller repair shop to Boeing’s vast assembly lines. It issues licenses to pilots and mechanics, approves aircraft designs, makes sure repairs are done correctly and parts aren’t counterfeit. It identifies safety lapses, orders companies to correct them, and punishes them when they don’t. Some of the violations it finds are relatively minor; others are anything but. In April 2005, for example, the FAA proposed a $600,000 penalty against American Eagle Airlines, saying it allowed a regional jet to fly 20 times even after learning the plane had a faulty rudder system. On January 19, 2004, American Eagle Flight 4649 left Bangor International Airport in Maine and had to return immediately because the plane’s rudder and rudder pedals had jammed. American Eagle “had prior knowledge of an aircraft vibration, yet continued to dispatch and operate the aircraft until actual rudder control rod failure at Bangor,” the FAA said in a letter to the airline. (American Eagle says it has since changed its procedures in response to the episode.) And in June 2004, the FAA proposed a $1 million penalty against United Airlines, saying it had allowed a Boeing 777 with nonworking emergency escape slides to fly 263 times during six months of 2001. An FAA inspector in Denver discovered that all eight doors on the plane had pins installed in their “escape slide packs,” rendering them useless. Boeing should have removed the pins before the plane left the factory, United said, and steps were taken to ensure that no further slipups occurred. Without that inspector’s diligence, how many thousands of passengers would have traveled on a dangerous aircraft, for how many more months? Would American Eagle and United have found and swiftly fixed these problems without the FAA breathing down their necks? There’s no way to know. But as Greg Feith, a former investigator for the NTSB, points out, “The FAA exists because someone needs to put boundaries” on airlines, pilots, and manufacturers. “If you don’t give them a rule book, they start making up their own rules.”

 

THE FAA’s ABILITY to maintain safe skies hinges on its relationships with its surrogates, known as designees, and on performing spot checks, if not full-scale investigations. In recent years, however, privatization has accelerated as the agency’s budget has been squeezed. Companies like Boeing, through their lobbying muscle and their presence on FAA advisory panels, have helped turn deregulatory dreams into rules, largely out of public view. “We’ve got an industry in crisis that needs more oversight and an administration that hates government,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the senior Democrat on the House Aviation Subcommittee. “We’re skating on the edge here to save money, and it’s not right.”

As evidence that its new approach works, the FAA notes aviation’s exceptional safety record of late—a fatal accident rate of 1 per 7 million takeoffs, an all-time low. There has been no major domestic airline crash since November 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 went down in New York, killing all 260 passengers and crew. The agency, which barred officials from talking to Mother Jones, said it has replaced its traditional “kicking tires” method of inspection in favor of a data-driven auditing system designed to spot disturbing patterns. This system, said a spokesman in a prepared statement, helps the FAA stay on top of the ever-expanding industry, even with fewer inspectors. The FAA is also “encouraging industry to increase use of designees,” the spokesman said. “This enables the FAA to leverage its workforce by focusing its resources on safety-critical areas while providing industry with timely, technical expertise.”

Designees, however, are paid not by the FAA but by private industry. “To me, that’s giving somebody a loaded gun,” said Randy Courtney, a retired 17-year FAA veteran. “If you were a designee working for Boeing and were threatened with firing for holding firm on a safety issue, what would you do? I was a damned good inspector, and I told people, ‘You’d better be thankful that there are people like me working in the FAA who care.’ I had no problem taking the responsibility and saying, ‘Bullshit. It’s not flying.’ There are inspectors now who won’t do that.” And some aviation experts worry that the inspector workforce is already leveraged to the hilt. Consider the logistical challenges posed by maintenance outsourcing—the use of third-party repair stations to perform work historically done by the airlines. There are 4,305 FAA-approved repair stations and 3,081 FAA inspectors in this country, and another 687 stations abroad that are overseen by a mere 71 inspectors. According to the Department of Transportation’s inspector general, major airlines now contract out 53 percent of their maintenance work, up from 37 percent in 1996. The reason? It saves money.

In theory, the 4,992 repair stations that service U.S. aircraft are no less reliable, from a safety standpoint, than the airlines’ own maintenance shops. The FAA has the right to inspect them, cite them for violations, and even shut them down. This assumes, however, that FAA inspectors can actually get to them—and in many cases they can’t. Lyle Alexander, a Singapore-based inspector, is responsible for one of the world’s largest repair stations, SIA Engineering Co., a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. In the United States, an operation the size of SIA might have as many as four inspectors keeping watch. But Alexander must keep tabs on SIA by himself—and that’s only a small part of his workload. “I have about four repair stations of equivalent size, plus about 10 medium-size and 10 smaller repair stations scattered around Asia—one-third of the world—without any help or assistance,” he said. “I can scratch the surface, and that’s about it.”

Since the fall of 2004, both the Department of Transportation’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’ watchdog agency, have jabbed at the FAA’s new regulatory strategy, questioning, among other things, whether the agency can maintain proper control of its sometimes-wayward designees and keep pace with the burgeoning number of contract repair stations. The FAA reacts defensively to such reports. In its written response to Mother Jones, for example, the agency challenged the accuracy of the inspector general’s figures on maintenance outsourcing and said, “The proportion of money spent on outsourced maintenance does not correlate to safety.” It also stands by its data-intensive oversight system, which has gradually supplanted its old inspection strategy of combing through documents and interrogating workers. “With 3,152 inspectors,” the FAA said, “we all recognize the futility of trying to police millions of flight operations and maintenance activities.”

 

LAST FALL, one of us tagged along as Mike Gonzales, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based inspector, dropped in on two of the nation’s biggest repair stations: TIMCO, at Phoenix-Goodyear Municipal Airport, and Evergreen Air Center in Marana, Arizona, about 90 miles southeast of Phoenix. “We’re being overwhelmed,” said Gonzales, who, like other FAA inspectors quoted, would speak only as a representative of their primary union, Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS). At TIMCO on this 90-degree October day, it is easy to see what he means: Dozens of mechanics and other workers scurry about the 250,000-square-foot Hangar 52. An America West Airlines Boeing 737 sits in one quadrant, looking as if it has been left in a bad neighborhood—jacked up, stripped down, wheels missing, interior gutted, the entrails of its engines exposed. TIMCO mechanics have been performing scheduled heavy maintenance on this aircraft 24 hours a day for four weeks, and there are still 10 days to go. In another corner, behind floor-to-ceiling curtains, a Boeing 767 is being sanded and repainted. Preparations are being made to bring a third plane into the hangar, replacing one that has just left. Three hundred mechanics work three shifts here, fixing or replacing thousands of parts, following manuals thicker than the Phoenix Yellow Pages.

Gonzales, a 54-year-old Air Force veteran in his 10th year with the FAA, scans the five-acre hangar and zeroes in on a pair of objects small enough to fit in his hands. “What do you see, real quick?” he asks, holding up two canisters used to supply oxygen masks. The canisters, both used, are nearly identical, save for the tags TIMCO has attached to them. One says “Discard,” the other “Repairable.” Gonzales shakes his head in disbelief. In the aviation maintenance business, if there’s a single word that has become shorthand for a worst-case screwup, it’s “ValuJet,” the now-defunct low-cost carrier that outsourced its repair work to a firm called SabreTech. In the spring of 1996, SabreTech mechanics in Miami improperly handled—and mislabeled—dozens of oxygen canisters that ultimately found their way into the cargo hold of the DC-9 that would become ValuJet Flight 592. The canisters ignited, causing an onboard inferno that sent the plane, and its 110 occupants, to the bottom of the Everglades.

Gonzales wants answers: Why has a canister that should have been discarded been deemed fixable? He questions a supervisor, who offers little explanation. “Damn, Mike,” the man says, chuckling. “I gotta start making this harder for you.” The supervisor promises to retag the mislabeled canister and find out what happened. He and Gonzales fall into amiable chitchat. Deep down, however, Gonzales is irritated. “That’s, like, high, visible bullshit,” he says out of earshot of the supervisor. More disturbing than the actual mix-up, he explains, is what the incident says about TIMCO’s ability to follow rigid, complex maintenance procedures. “It’s an indicator that somebody doesn’t know what they’re doing,” Gonzales says. Still, he considers the matter resolved, and as his visit is primarily to show a reporter around, he does not pursue a penalty against TIMCO. Enforcement actions, he says, are “terribly time-consuming,” sucking in all manner of lawyers, managers, and technicians. Better to simply make one’s presence known, like a state trooper with a radar gun: “If you see a cop sitting there on the highway, what’s everybody doing? They’re hitting the brakes.” But what if the cop’s rarely around? “If these repair stations are not up to the level where you can feel warm and fuzzy about them putting out an airworthy product, you’re going to want to spend more time there,” Gonzales says. “But if you don’t have the time to spend, how do you do that?” On the drive back to the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office in Scottsdale, Gonzales reflects on what he’s seen at TIMCO that day. He can’t stop thinking about the oxygen canisters in Hangar 52. “I mean, that’s what got SabreTech,” he says. “Have they learned anything? I don’t think so.”

At Evergreen the next day, some 200 planes are strewn about a 1,600-acre former Army Air Corps base that is larger than many Arizona towns. Driving across the complex is like driving the tarmac of a busy international airport: Ghana Airways, Philippines Air, China Airways, and Pakistan Air are all visible here. The facility has 550 employees and generates $62 million a year in business. Inside the control center, the brains of the operation, the walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with plastic file holders. Each holder contains the job card for a single repair task: a job description, some pages from the Boeing manual, and an easy-to-follow diagram, all color-coded and arranged by sections of the plane. The mechanic’s notes, detailing the completion of each step, are off to the side. Next to them, a supervisor’s stamp indicates the job has been signed off. The entire room, containing at least 1,000 files, is dedicated to a single aircraft—the 767 sitting 30 feet away.

Because there is no way an inspector can oversee the turning of every screw in every aircraft, the control center is an essential stop. “I usually just grab a few files and head out to the plane to see if they’ve been done,” Gonzales says. He’s seeking reassurance that tasks are being performed by the book and carefully documented. “Is there any real method? No. Something will just grab your eye, and I can’t explain what it is.” Mike Michels, Evergreen’s chief quality officer, laughs. “Safety inspectors have an uncanny knack for finding the thing that doesn’t look right,” he says. “You could have 2,000 cards in here, and they’ll come in and pull the one that doesn’t have a signature.”

Although he’s not here to conduct an official inspection, Gonzales declares that he’s generally pleased with what he sees. “Do I feel comfortable…? Yeah, I really do, because they have a very valid quality-control system in play.” Airlines don’t send their planes to Evergreen strictly for the fine craftsmanship, however. Cost is a huge factor. Michels explains that for airlines, “payroll is your largest single expense, and if your payroll is two to three times that of a repair station, you see where the economics of that would severely impact your profitability.” Driving back to Scottsdale, Gonzales says he doesn’t lose much sleep worrying about Evergreen. He does fret, however, over the airlines’ perpetual quest to trim maintenance costs. “You have an entity here that does millions of dollars in business,” he says of Evergreen. “They have resources. But when these entities start operating in the red, it’s guaranteed they’re going to start taking shortcuts.”

 

AS ACCIDENT INVESTIGATORS know all too well, even the smallest act or oversight—an insufficiently torqued bolt, an improperly tested engine—can cause a catastrophe. In the case of ValuJet, it was the mislabeled oxygen canisters. In the case of US Airways Express Flight 5481, which crashed in Charlotte, North Carolina, on January 8, 2003, it was the improper rigging of the plane’s elevator control system, which—along with a weight-related imbalance—caused the Beechcraft 1900D to plunge nose-first into the ground seconds after takeoff, killing all aboard. The NTSB found that the plane’s elevator control cables had been misadjusted days before the accident at a repair station operated by Raytheon Aerospace in Huntington, West Virginia. The work had been done by a mechanic employed by Structural Modification and Repair Technicians Inc. (SMART), a labor supplier used by Raytheon. According to the NTSB, “The mechanic skipped nine applicable steps in the Beechcraft 1900D elevator control system rigging procedure.” Had just one of the missed steps—identified by the board as “step u”—been performed, the crash might have been avoided. The SMART mechanic had been working under the supervision of a Raytheon quality assurance inspector. But the board found that the inspector, too, was at fault: He “was aware that the mechanic was selectively performing steps from the rigging procedure…. In fact, the inspector stated, during a postaccident interview, that he did not think the [aircraft] manufacturer intended for mechanics to follow the entire rigging procedure….” In short, both the mechanic and the inspector were freelancing. Twenty-one people died as a result.

The Department of Transportation’s inspector general reported in December that “non-certificated” repair stations like Raytheon, which once performed only minor services, are now doing the same sort of critical work as FAA-certificated operations, without the same level of oversight. “It’s physically impossible for us to get to some of these repair stations,” said Linda Goodrich, a PASS vice president and a maintenance inspector. “We’re totally dependent on airlines to tell us that they’ve done oversight on contractors.” The problem is most acute for inspectors, like James Webb, who oversee foreign stations. “There’s me and my partner, two of us, for Taiwan,” Webb said. He said he has identified a worrisome trend: Carriers are giving repair stations an increasingly free hand in creating their own maintenance routines. Federal regulations require the carrier, not the maintenance contractor, to develop detailed, FAA-approved “task cards” mapping out the procedures a mechanic is to follow when working on a plane. The task cards highlight the airline’s “required inspection items”—those items it believes too important to be allowed to fail. Unlike other components, these must be inspected and approved by a licensed supervisor after the work has been completed. “The air carriers are saying now they don’t want to spend the money to develop the task card system, so they let the repair stations do it,” Webb said. “To me, that’s wrong, because they’re not approved by the FAA. The FAA never looks at it.”

Webb sees this most often in “off wing” maintenance, where critical components like engines are removed from planes and sent out for repairs. During a recent inspection of Taiwan’s Evergreen Aviation Technologies (commonly known as EGAT; no relation to Evergreen in Arizona), Webb found mechanics working without carrier task cards on an engine belonging to Delta Air Lines—a practice he has seen at other repair stations. “Everything we have says they can’t do it, but they are, and I’m having a hell of a time trying to stop it,” he said. “These air carriers are not little, and they have a lot of money and a lot of influence. I’m just a stupid little inspector.” Webb told EGAT he would cite it for the violation. The company protested, Webb remembered, arguing that everybody does it. Webb urged EGAT to file a written complaint with his superiors, a move he hopes will force the FAA to clarify the policy. “I told them, ‘You can get more attention from the people in Washington than I can.’” The FAA, after all, refers to EGAT and other repair stations as its “customers,” Webb said unhappily. “I think the flying public is my customer.”

Webb’s angst is shared by other FAA field inspectors, who said they find the agency’s elimination of hundreds of jobs and its acquiescence to industry deeply troubling. Before Robert McCallister joined the FAA as a safety engineer 18 years ago, he was a designee. “At that time, we did the more mundane things,” said McCallister, a Fort Worth-based representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We were limited in what we could do and what we could approve.” No more. Under the new self-certification system, McCallister said, aircraft modifiers can install everything from toilets to sophisticated flight control systems, with nominal FAA supervision. Manufacturers like Boeing “will, in effect, approve their own designs with absolutely no second check.”

Boeing downplays the risks. “They’re giving us permission to do part of their job,” a company spokeswoman, Liz Verdier, said of the FAA. “They still very much oversee us. There is a huge burden on us, in that we still have to provide the same compliance, but we can use our own efficiencies and processes to get that done.”

 

STILL, THE CRASH OF SWISSAIR FLIGHT 111, which killed 229 people, including Tara Fetherolf, should serve as a cautionary tale. The source of the fire that caused the crash is believed to have been an in-flight entertainment system that allowed first- and business-class passengers on Swissair’s long-haul flights to gamble. The installation of that system was overseen by an FAA designee, Santa Barbara Aerospace.

The installation process did not go smoothly. Postcrash investigations by Canadian and U.S. authorities revealed that it was hurried and ill conceived. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded that the fire aboard Flight 111 most likely started with a “wire arcing event”—a continuous spark—precipitated by the inappropriate connection of the system to an electrical “bus” typically reserved for the plane’s navigational equipment and other essential avionics. The board also rebuked the FAA, saying, in effect, that the agency had given its designee too much authority.

Nine months after the crash, an FAA review team reported that Santa Barbara Aerospace did not follow proper certification procedures in “many instances,” submitted data that were “inadequate or inaccurate,” and, because the FAA did not require it, failed to tell the FAA about changes in the project’s scope. But even during the installation, the FAA had doubts about the company. On December 12, 1996, having concluded that the firm “does not provide adequate personnel who can perform, supervise, and inspect the work for which it is rated,” the FAA issued an “emergency order of suspension” to Santa Barbara Aerospace. Certificate No. S3BR755J was immediately pulled. And then, inexplicably, it was reinstated five days later. The FAA told Mother Jones it no longer has all the records but that “legal action was initiated in error because the company took corrective measures prior to” the suspension.

In February 2004, Mark Fetherolf, who has filed upward of 75 Freedom of Information Act requests with the FAA in an attempt to learn what happened, wrote to two Republican congressmen from Florida, where he then lived, seeking answers to these questions: Why was the firm’s designee status suspended in 1996, and why was it reinstated? The lawmakers—John Mica, who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, and E. Clay Shaw Jr.—asked the FAA to explain itself. The response came on March 12, 2004, from the FAA’s deputy chief counsel, James Whitlow: “The FAA’s decision not to pursue the enforcement action against Santa Barbara Aerospace was based on the conclusion that the agency lacked sufficient evidence at that time to sustain our burden of proof.” Fetherolf dismissed Whitlow’s response. “They had to have some reason for taking action against Santa Barbara Aerospace in the first place,” he said. “It’s one of the most blatant cases of obfuscation I’ve ever seen.”

 

THE FAA INISISTS THAT the Swissair accident was an anomaly and has pressed on with plans to give the industry more power to self-regulate. The latest incarnation of what the FAA calls collaboration was solidified in October 2005, when a program was established to permit companies like Boeing to self-certify, with the FAA auditing to make sure certain processes are followed. The rule change came after years of closed meetings among members of an FAA working group created to reduce the cost of airline certification. The group, chaired by Webster Heath, Boeing’s senior manager of technical affairs, transmitted its final recommendations to the FAA in 1998, asking for the “earliest possible issuance” of a rule to expand delEGATion authority. These recommendations were sent to Thomas McSweeny, then the FAA’s associate administrator for regulation and certification and now a lobbyist for Boeing. The FAA issued its proposed rule in January 2004, and Boeing hailed it as “an important building block toward increased delegation throughout the aviation industry.” The Aerospace Industries Association remarked that it was “very close in content to the final product” put out by the working group.

Despite union objections, the final rule was adopted. Supporters say it will free up the resource-starved FAA to focus on the most important safety issues and leave the “common, everyday functions” to the industry. But already, the parties disagree on what constitutes a “common, everyday” task. The GAO has raised questions about the FAA’s ability to manage the 13,600 companies and individuals in the designee program. In an October 2004 report, GAO auditors found “inconsistent oversight” by the FAA, brought about by incomplete databases, heavy inspector workloads, and widely varying standards among field offices. And they found that “FAA offices do not always identify and remove inactive or poor performing designees expeditiously, which may be due to reluctance on the part of managers, engineers, and inspectors to take disciplinary action.”

 

THE FAA’s REJIGGERED REGULATORY scheme will be tested in Everett, Washington, the final assembly point for Boeing’s next-generation jet, the 787 Dreamliner. Locked in a war with Airbus for domination of the commercial aircraft market, Boeing wants to put the sleek 250-passenger plane into service by 2008. About half of its body will be made of lightweight carbon-fiber composite materials—a higher proportion than in today’s mostly aluminum aircraft. Composites are popular with airlines because they save fuel and, therefore, money. But they also behave differently than aluminum, require a different method of testing for flaws, and have not been used for as many flight-critical components—the “wing boxes,” for example—as they will be in the 787 or Airbus’ behemoth-in-development, the 555-passenger A380. “Do you really trust Boeing to have the integrity and the character and the sense of public stewardship to resist the schedule pressures of a program that is late, overbudget, overweight, or if there are serious technical issues that we don’t have solutions for?” asks Stan Sorscher, a Seattle-based representative of the Boeing engineers’ union. “All those problems exist in the 787 program. This is a time to be watching very carefully.”

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