Last month's news about maintenance problems at airlines won't turn rock-ribbed road warriors into white-knuckle fliers. But it's enough to give less seasoned travelers a queasy feeling.
First, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed fining Southwest Airlines a record $10.2-million for missing an inspection deadline a year ago and still flying 46 planes for about a week. The airline grounded 38 planes March 12 and found small fuselage cracks on four of them.
A week later, a 5-foot-by-4-foot panel tore off of the wing of a US Airways 757 over Maryland. The plane landed safely with no one hurt. But follow-up inspections uncovered improper maintenance on wing sections of seven other 757s, requiring minor repairs.
American and Delta grounded MD-80 family jets last week to inspect — and in some cases fix — spacing between wire bundles on the planes' auxiliary hydraulic system in accordance with an earlier FAA directive. They canceled more than 600 flights.
So, how should travelers deal with all this? First, put these incidents in perspective. The safety record for U.S. airlines is now the best in aviation history. In a year with more than 11-million flights, not a single passenger died and there were no major accidents in 2007.
But also be aware there's increasing criticism of maintenance lapses by airlines and how the FAA polices them.
"The pendulum has swung ... toward carrier-favorable, cozy conduct at the FAA,'' said U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "There's a lack of enforcement mind set at the FAA.''
His comments to reporters came in advance of a committee hearing Thursday on the agency's safety oversight of airlines.
Southwest will be front and center. The first witnesses scheduled are two FAA inspectors who say their concerns about the airline were dismissed by a supervisor. In March 2007, the manager let Southwest keep flying 737s that were overdue for inspections and should have been grounded.
The airline will bring out its big guns, founder Herb Kelleher and CEO Gary Kelly. They'll underscore Southwest's safety record and pledge to make "whatever changes are necessary to carry its outstanding record into the future,'' a spokeswoman told the Dallas Morning News last week.
But the committee also should take up broader issues about safety compliance. One is how airlines increasingly rely on outside companies to perform scheduled maintenance on jets that they used to do themselves.
Shifting the work to contractors saves big bucks, a big deal now with soaring fuel prices threatening the industry's brief financial recovery.
Critics, including unions for airline mechanics, contend the FAA doesn't have enough inspectors to watch over work like they do inside an airline's hangars. That's especially true at the growing number of overseas repair shops.
Another question will be the FAA's strategy for finding safety problems. More and more, the agency relies on data provided by airlines instead of inspectors looking at repairs. They use computer programs that find patterns of problems and identify risks.
There are too many planes and too few inspectors to ferret out problems with eyeballs alone, says the FAA. But John Goglia, a retired National Transportation Safety Board member and mechanic, says the electronic system isn't "robust enough'' yet, especially as the number of FAA inspectors dwindles.
Goglia flies constantly and never worries something might be wrong with the plane he's on. "The concern is the system — that it may not work as its designed to do, that it maintain the ability to catch things that could go wrong,'' he says.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (8123) 226-3384.