Several Podcast Episodes About FAA Oversight Issues

Show #47: Interview on the Radio America Show 'The Gregg Knapp Experience' - 14 April 2008

This interview from the Radio America show The Gregg Knapp Experience focused on issues that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discussed in their hearings that started on April 3rd, 2008. Topics covered included the threats that were alleged to have been directed at whistleblowers in the FAA who wanted to report problems with the oversight process.

Audio: MP3 Length: 9:35

Show #46: Interview on the BBC Show 'The World Today' - 7 April 2008

This interview from the BBC show The World Today focused on issues that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discussed in their hearings that started on April 3rd, 2008. Topics covered included the role of whistleblowers in the FAA and whether the FAA is doing their job of protecting those who fly.

Audio: MP3 Length: 5:12

Show #45: Interview on the Don Shelby Show on WCCO Radio in Minneapolis - 7 April 2008

This interview from the Don Shelby Show on WCCO radio in Minneapolis focused on issues that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discussed in their hearings that started on April 3rd, 2008. Topics covered included the risks passengers may face as a result of recent maintenance problems, and issues around airline maintenance that us outsourced to companies outside of the U.S.

Audio: MP3 Length: 10:11

Show #44: Interview on the Ankarlo Morning Show on KTAR Radio in Phoenix - 3 April 2008

This discussion with KTAR host Darrell Ankarlo focused on issues that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would likely discuss in their hearings that started on April 3rd, 2008. The key issue of concern in the hearing was the relationship between the FAA and the airlines, specifically whether the recent problems with the FAA's oversight of Southwest Airlines were a symptom of a broader problem within the agency.

Audio: MP3 Length: 11:44

Show #43: A Discussion of Concerns After a String of Airline Safety Events - 1 April 2008

A roundtable discussion on National Public Radion station WAMU from 1 April 2008 featuring Dr. Curtis, the Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Daily Jim Matthews, and the vice president for operations and safety of the Air Transport Association Basil Barimo.

Audio: MP3 Length: 47:56

Show #42: The FAA Inspection Process and Southwest Airlines - 28 March 2008

In this Conversation, Dr. Todd Curtis discusses a proposed $10.2 million dollar fine against Southwest Airlines and how problems with FAA safety inspection process allowed the airline to continue to fly airplanes that were not in compliance with a mandatory safety inspection. Dr. Curtis also discusses the role the FAA played in allowing Southwest to fly out of compliance aircraft, and how subsequent actions by the FAA may ensure that all airline operators may be following the rules but may also inconvenience passengers and undermines their confidence in the FAA.
Audio: MP3 | VideoiPod/MP4 | WMV | YouTube

Length: 9:05

Video Report from 28 March 2008

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Related Resources:
18 March 2008 letter sent by FAA to airline operators requesting safety audit
Text of AD 2004-18-06
Fatal events involving Southwest Airlines
Types of Airworthiness Directives
Database of Airworthiness Directives
Other Conversation at podcasts

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Transcript of Show #42
Welcome to the Conversation at with your host Dr. Todd Curtis.

This is show #42 - The FAA Inspection Process and Southwest Airlines.

This show was first broadcast on March 28, 2008.

In this Conversation, I'll review the circumstances that led the FAA to levy a proposed $10.2 million dollar fine against Southwest Airlines. I'll first give some background on part of the process that the FAA uses to insure safety, as well as an overview of the events that led to the proposed fines, and the roles played by both the FAA and Southwest Airlines.

First, a bit of background information about one of the ways that the FAA and the airlines insure safety.

The aviation industry is a global enterprise, and traditionally national governments make and enforce the rules under which aircraft can operate. In the US, the FAA, is the organization that has the primary responsibility for creating and enforcing civil aviation regulations, especially those covering safety inspections for aircraft flown by the airlines.

The FAA allows airlines to manage the operation and maintenance of aircraft, including the performance of maintenance inspections required by the FAA. While an airline may perform safety inspections, it is the FAA's responsibility to ensure that inspections are performed properly. In other words, representatives of the FAA may review the safety inspection process to ensure compliance, but representatives from the FAA don't perform any of the actual inspections.

This oversight is critical because if the FAA does not properly review the actions of airlines, it may put the general public at risk by allowing aircraft to fly that don't meet FAA safety standards.

One of the most important ways that the FAA maintains the safety of operating aircraft is through the Airworthiness Directive process.

An Airworthiness Directive is a rule issued by the FAA as a means of correcting an unsafe condition.

When an Airworthiness Directive is issued, anyone operating the type of aircraft affected by the directive must take the actions described in the directive in order to continue flying that aircraft.

The typical directive allows the aircraft operator to continue flying the aircraft while the subject of the directive is addressed.

While these directives typically only apply to organizations that operate aircraft in the U.S., FAA Airworthiness Directives are usually followed by other civil aviation authorities, especially those in Canada, Japan, Australia, and the European Union.

Airworthiness Directives are public records, and are published in the Federal Register, which is the daily publication for Rules, Proposed Rules, and Notices of the US Federal Government

Airworthiness Directives are legally enforceable rules. If a directive is not followed, the FAA may impose any number of civil penalties, including fines or grounding an aircraft.

In the case of the Airworthiness Directive that affected Southwest, the FAA mandated that the airline perform a specific type of inspection at intervals of no more than 4,500 flight cycles to detect fatigue cracking in areas of the fuselage skin on some Boeing 737 models.

This directive, number 2004-18-06, was originally issued in September 2004 and took effect the following month.

It required that older models of the 737, including several models flown by Southwest, be inspected for fatigue cracking on certain upper and lower fuselage panels.

This was a safety-related directive that had the goal of finding and fixing fatigue cracks which if left unrepaired could result in sudden fracture and failure of the skin panels and rapid decompression of the aircraft.

While the consequences of a structural failure of the fuselage can be catastrophic, the airline was given quite a bit of time to perform the necessary checks. It wasn't until June 18th, 2006 that Southwest was out of compliance with this directive.

In all, 46 aircraft were not inspected by the deadline of 4,500 flight cycles, and these aircraft were flown a total of 59,791 times before Southwest realized its mistake.

Actions by both Southwest and the FAA contributed to the problems that led to the proposed $10.2 million dollar fine.

Rather than immediately grounding the aircraft after discovering that they were out of compliance, Southwest operated the aircraft for an additional 1,451 flights after it became aware of the compliance problem.

On March 15, 2007, Southwest Airlines initiated a re-inspection of the affected airplanes in order to comply with the Airworthiness Directive, and later found that six of the 46 airplanes had fatigue cracks. All of these cracks were repaired and none of them represented an immediate threat to the aircraft.

Southwest Airlines was not the only responsible party. The FAA has the responsibility of overseeing the maintenance actions of Southwest, including actions related to Airworthiness Directives.

The FAA was also initially unaware that the aircraft were out of compliance. It's not clear if the FAA had the capacity to recognize this problem before Southwest did, but it is very clear what happened after Southwest notified the FAA of the problem. Rather than making the airline ground the aircraft until the inspections were complete, the FAA allowed the aircraft to continue flying.

A supervisor who permitted the flights was removed from his position. This was only the first of many actions taken by the FAA.

On March 6, 2008, the FAA announced a proposed fine of $10.2 million dollars for Southwest Airlines, $200,000 for missing the inspection deadline, and $10 million dollars for continuing to fly 46 of its aircraft after the airline became aware of the missed inspections.

In response to Southwest's actions and the actions of its own representatives, the FAA ordered that all US commercial air carriers perform an audit of all outstanding Airworthiness Directives by June 30th, 2008, with at least 10% of the audit to be completed by March 28, 2008.

Within the first few days of the audit, both Delta Airlines and American Airlines discovered that some of their MD-80 series aircraft may have been out of compliance with an Airworthiness Directive. Both airlines voluntarily grounded the affected aircraft and inspected them before allowing them back into service.

Less than one percent of the directives in the initial phase of the audit were found to be out of compliance, and according to FAA Assistant Administrator for Communications Lynn Tierney, none of these out of compliance directives affected flight safety.

The average passenger will likely ask whether these problems between the FAA and the airlines puts them at risk, and whether their travels may be disrupted because of future aircraft groundings.

So far, there's no indication that any of these problems have affected safety. True, Southwest did find four small cracks among the 46 aircraft that had delayed inspections, but there was no indication that these cracks posed any significant risks for passengers and crew.

Delta Airlines and American Airlines temporarily grounded part of their fleet as a result of the safety audit, but nothing was found that indicated that the aircraft posed a danger to any of their occupants.

Some passengers were delayed because of the aircraft groundings, and during the remaining months of the system-wide audit, there may be additional groundings and delays.

The biggest risk to passengers is that the system that the FAA has in place to ensure that aircraft remain in compliance with safety regulations may not be working as intended. So far, shortcomings of the system have allowed aircraft to fly out of compliance with the rules, but fortunately no passengers have been exposed to any excessive risks.

The confidence of the public has likely been undermined by the failure of the FAA to properly oversee required safety-related maintenance, and it remains to be seen whether actions by the airlines, by the FAA, or by the federal government will fully restore that confidence.

Past events, specifically the 1988 fatal accident involving an Aloha Airlines 737, are very much a factor in the current concerns about safety-related maintenance, especially maintenance actions designed to detect fatigue cracking in older 737 aircraft.

On April 28, 1988, an Aloha Airlines 737 aircraft experienced a dramatic loss of a large part of its fuselage, in part because of unrecognized structural problems.

The aircraft, with 90 passengers and five crew members on board, was on a scheduled flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii.

The aircraft experienced an explosive decompression and structural failure at about 24,000 feet due to metal fatigue in an upper cabin area.

A roughly 18-foot long section of the fuselage separated from the aircraft, and a flight attendant who was standing in the aisle at the time was ejected out of the aircraft.

The crew was able to execute a successful emergency landing with a significant portion of the upper fuselage missing. In addition to the fatally injured flight attendant, seven passengers were seriously injured.

This event made metal fatigue a major area of concern for the FAA, especially for older aircraft.

The US Congress plans to hold hearings in April 2008 about the FAA's performance when it comes to overseeing the Airworthiness Directive process. No doubt, this 1988 Aloha event will be mentioned several times during the course of these hearings.

For additional information and other resources related to the proposed Southwest fine and the ongoing airline audit, please visit

There you will find links to related resources and links to other resources related to airline safety and security.

Thanks for listening, and I'll see you next time.

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Notes from Show #42 of the Conversation at Podcast -- Revised: 13 April 2008