Have a nice flight you'all Airlines sending up unsafe jets By Tamara Lytle | Sentinel Bureau Chief Posted April 11, 2002 WASHINGTON -- Two investigations into airline safety have found major problems with how the air carriers maintain their planes and that federal watchdogs are doing a poor job of checking up on them. A report by the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, to be presented to Congress today, lays out a series of lapses by airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration in overseeing maintenance that is the mainstay of safe flying. ***** One airline, for example, had five planes inspected in a spot check, and two of them had such bad fuel leaks that they had to be grounded. Two others had problems that needed repair, and only one plane was in good order. Just a month before the FAA official in charge of checking that airline had found no problems -- a sign of poor oversight by the FAA and a shoddy maintenance program by the airline, according to the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General. The reports do not identify the offending airlines. David Barnes of the Inspector General's Office said the report was not a safety scorecard for airlines but a review of the overall system, so the names of the carriers with problems were not disclosed. The report looked at the system that airlines use to track their own maintenance programs, called the Continuing Analysis and Surveillance System. "Maybe this is the Enron of aviation," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, which represents passengers. "The FAA functions like auditors on the airlines." "Significant" maintenance problems at one airline were identified in 1996 but still hadn't been corrected four years later, according to the report. At another airline, problems were left unresolved for two years. Yet another airline sent surveys to its subcontractors asking them for information about their own maintenance work instead of having the airline double-check repair work done by the vendors. The findings will be the subject of a hearing today before the House Transportation Aviation Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park. A second report, also by the Inspector General's Office, paints a similar disturbing picture of FAA's broader system of ensuring safety. That system was put in place after the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades, which killed 110 people when fire broke out on board shortly after takeoff. ValuJet is now part of Orlando-based AirTran Airways. Although the FAA is a slow-moving bureaucracy that has not been good at collecting and analyzing important data about maintenance, the United States still has the safest airline system in the world, Stempler said. Airline safety is covered by multiple layers of inspections. The FAA has its own inspectors but not enough to do the job itself, so it relies heavily on airlines to check themselves. The inspector general found there is plenty the FAA can do to improve its watchdog powers, including: Following up when airlines are deficient in maintenance. Check each carrier's surveillance system at least once a year. Alaska Airlines' internal maintenance oversight had not been checked by the FAA for more than two years before the Jan. 31, 2000, crash that killed 88 people near Los Angeles. Collect and analyze more data on the airlines' systems so that problem trends can be spotted and resources such as FAA inspections can be targeted where they're most needed. Do a more thorough job of reviewing the airlines' own systems for keeping track of maintenance. At three out of five smaller air carriers visited by the inspector general, the FAA had done nothing more than stop in on monthly meetings at the airline, the report said. FAA officials on Wednesday acknowledged problems in their oversight of airline maintenance and said they had agreed to improvements suggested by the inspector general. "We're continuing to fix" the problems, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said. "It's not something that can be done overnight."