FAA embroiled in controversy over safety issues, records show

Sunday, October 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – About 20 top Federal Aviation Administration officials sequestered themselves in a windowless Holiday Inn conference room three months ago to sort out a mess of their own making.

"We're here because we're in big trouble," Nick Lacey, the FAA's director of flight standards service, told the somber group. "Jane Garvey [the FAA chief] is in big trouble. ... All of you ... all of us.

"Serious questions are being asked by the Congress and the White House: Is this agency performing its duty on safety?"

Three days after a fatal American Airlines crash last year that raised questions about pilot fatigue, Ms. Garvey, the FAA administrator, had promised to "rigorously" enforce FAA rules designed to make sure planes are not flown by exhausted crews.

Nonetheless, Mr. Lacey said, the FAA top brass had just found out "that a major carrier with the worst record [of compliance] has not even started to enforce that rule." And, to make matters worse, the carrier was Fort Worth-based American Airlines.

"That is a failure that calls for heads to roll," he said. "We have failed to do our job."

American Airlines officials acknowledge that they were out of compliance until last month but said that safety was not jeopardized.

However, records and interviews show that the FAA, which regulates the U.S. aviation industry, has been slow to aggressively address pilot fatigue, which the government's own studies have portrayed as a widespread problem.

Despite calls from the National Transportation Safety Board, pilots' unions and researchers for tougher enforcement and new regulations, the FAA has not always ensured that major carriers were following the rules governing pilot work hours and rest periods.

The FAA has long been criticized for being too easy on airlines and failing to address known safety problems until a crash occurs.

The meeting at the Holiday Inn, recounted in a consultant's report obtained by the Los Angeles Times, provides an extraordinary inside view of an agency under siege and of high-ranking officials' candidly admitting serious performance failures in tackling a significant safety issue.

Evidence has mounted for 20 years that fatigue is a hazard among commercial airline pilots, who often crisscross time zones and work overnight in stressful conditions after abbreviated rest periods.

Flight crew fatigue has been identified as the cause of at least three major jetliner crashes in the last decade – two involving U.S. carriers – and as a factor in at least one more. In government reports, pilots themselves said they sometimes nod off in the cockpit.

By September, two months after the Holiday Inn meeting, American had been brought into compliance but the company still could be subject to a fine, the FAA said.

American vice chairman Bob Baker said the airline's noncompliance should have come as no surprise to the FAA. The agency, he said, had been informed that American could not add the 200 pilots necessary to comply with the rules by the deadline last Dec. 12. An extension request by American was denied.

FAA officials said the agency is inspecting other major carriers to make sure they are in compliance, and Mr. Lacey said he thinks they already are.

As of early July, American Airlines, the nation's second-largest carrier, was not conforming to flight rules that the FAA's administrator had vowed to enforce strictly.

Embarrassed FAA officials took up the matter at their quarterly meeting in mid-July, engaging in soul-searching and speculation about the damage that the disclosure could do to the agency's tarnished image.

"It has not been fun to walk into the administrator's office and say [we] screwed up again," Tom McSweeny, the FAA's associate administrator for regulation and certification, told his regional managers at the meeting. "I was the one to tell her about American Airlines. It was not pleasant to look her in the eye."

Mr. McSweeny then described the FAA's handling of the pilot fatigue issue as a potential public relations nightmare that he said would unfairly fuel the public perception that it takes a major accident before the FAA addresses a safety concern.