By DAVE MICHAELS
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is pushing stripped-down legislation to overhaul practices that contributed to last year’s lapsed oversight of Southwest Airlines.
The bill is sponsored by senior members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, including Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
Despite highly publicized investigations of maintenance problems at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. and Fort Worth-based American Airlines Inc., broader legislation to overhaul the Federal Aviation Administration has been stalled in the Senate.
The new legislation would impose select controls to address what lawmakers called cozy relations between airlines and regulators.
It also would require regulators to regularly review safety risk data reported by carriers, which has happened infrequently, lawmakers said.
While lawmakers assert that more hands-on airline inspections are needed, the bill doesn’t address staffing needs.
The FAA reauthorization bill, which last failed in the Senate in May, would permit the FAA to hire 200 more inspectors.
“This legislation today really works in concert with the [FAA] reauthorization bill,” Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., said Tuesday at a news conference. It also responds to specific conditions that lawmakers found during their investigation of the FAA’s oversight of Southwest Airlines.
The FAA fined the carrier $10.2 million this year for failing to conduct necessary fuselage inspections, although an FAA manager allowed the airline to keep flying the jets.
Lawmakers attributed those failures to a close relationship between an FAA manager and a Southwest Airlines employee who previously worked together at the FAA office overseeing the carrier.
Under the bill, FAA inspectors would be barred from going to work for an airline for two years after they leave the agency. FAA supervisors wouldn’t be allowed to oversee the same carrier for more than five years.
In a statement, the FAA said it had already initiated a rule that would prevent its ex-employees from interacting with regulators for two years if they join an airline.
The Air Transport Association, which represents American and Southwest, said that it supports the bill.
But the FAA signaled that it still opposes another feature of the legislation – the creation of a unit within the FAA to investigate whistle-blower allegations.
The FAA has been faulted for failing to pursue whistle-blower allegations, including serious complaints by inspectors and air traffic controllers in North Texas.
The FAA says a new software system, which tracks safety concerns raised by employees, can do that job.
But that new system has been criticized by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The bill also would require the FAA to create a team to review data reported to the Air Transportation Oversight System. Inspectors are supposed to use that system to guide their reviews of airline problem spots.
During recent congressional hearings, several inspectors complained that they aren’t given access to safety data that come from the carriers they are supposed to oversee. They also said that reports aren’t regularly produced.
Even if the bill passes the House, it’s not clear that it would win Senate approval.
The Senate has been reluctant to pass piecemeal aviation legislation, said a spokesman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., who chairs a Senate aviation subcommittee.
“Sen. Rockefeller would prefer we have the longer-term authorization to deal with all the things that we need to deal with the FAA,” said Steven Broderick, the senator’s spokesman.
Source: DALLAS MORNING NEWS