(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations Subcommittee, expressed serious concern over the FAA's ability to perform timely inspections of airline safety systems. In a speech on the Senate floor, Murray discussed overdue inspections at eight different airline carriers that were recently reveled to her in a letter from the FAA. The FAA had long recommended that these inspections – known as “Safety Attribute Inspections” – be conducted at least every five years. Then in 2007, the FAA mandated that all such inspections be conducted no later than five years after the last agency inspection so as to make certain that each airline has the right systems in place to ensure compliance with all safety regulations. Data provided to Murray by the FAA indicates that more than one hundred of these inspections are now overdue.
"These inspections are important because they help airlines and the FAA discover potential problems and address them before there is a tragedy," Murray said. "Clearly, the FAA needs to bring more focus and leadership to meeting its own self-imposed deadlines."
The FAA letter was sent to Murray as a follow up to questions she posed to Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell at an oversight hearing she chaired on April 17th. In the letter, Sturgell cites “inadequate resources" as a potential reason for why the five-year inspections have not been completed on time. Senator Murray, whose THUD Subcommittee has continually provided the FAA with more money than they have requested, discussed this suggestion in her remarks on the floor.
"Mr. Sturgell has said that part of the reason might be 'inadequate resources,'" said Senator Murray "Well, I’m not sure how that could be. I’ve worked to increase funding for FAA inspections over the last seven years. In fact – and this is true of my Appropriations Subcommittee whether I have been chairman or my Republican colleagues have been chairman – for four out of the last seven years, we have provided more funding for more safety inspectors than the FAA ever requested of us. And so if it is a funding issue, the FAA has not been honest about the true needs of the agency."
Senator Murray will be demanding quarterly reports from the FAA on the progress of the overdue inspections.
Senator Murray's comments on FAA inspections on the Senate floor today follow:
Mr. President, you’ll remember that earlier this year we learned some disturbing news about the FAA’s handling of safety inspections at Southwest. We learned that the FAA hadn’t reviewed Southwest’s system for complying with certain agency safety directives since 1999. That revelation caused a great deal of concern about the FAA’s safety inspections across the country – with good reason.
These inspections are important because they help airlines and the FAA discover potential problems – and address them before there is a tragedy. But when Congress began looking into the problem, we found that it was much more extensive.
Last month, at a hearing with the Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell and the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, I learned that – for well over five years – the FAA had not examined whether Southwest was using the right safety systems for certain maintenance requirements. Now, you can imagine that I was very concerned to hear that. So I asked how many other airlines had missed safety inspections – and at the time Mr. Sturgell could not answer.
Well, I recently received an answer. And the FAA now says that it has failed to perform dozens of mandatory inspections at seven other major air carriers. In fact, the FAA says it has missed more than 100 of these required safety system inspections at major airlines. Mr. Sturgell has said that part of the reason might be “inadequate resources.”
Well, I’m not sure how that could be. I’ve worked to increase funding for FAA inspections over the last seven years. In fact – and this is true of my Appropriations Subcommittee whether I have been chairman or my Republican colleagues have been chairman – for four out of the last seven years, we have provided more funding for more safety inspectors than the FAA ever requested of us.
And so if it is a funding issue, the FAA has not been honest about the true needs of the agency. I know that Congress has been doing its part to build the inspection workforce without the benefit of a request from the FAA. As a result, we have hundreds more inspectors across the country than the FAA has ever requested.
Either way, Mr. President, I have serious concerns because the agency has insisted that the airlines must be the ones to guarantee the safety of their operations. And it has said that FAA inspectors are best used to ensure that the airlines have the systems to do the job. Now we are being told that the FAA is years behind in inspecting those very systems. The lesson from the Southwest debacle is that these system inspections matter. They are one of the best indicators of whether an airline has its act together when it comes to maintenance and safety compliance.
Clearly, the FAA needs to bring more focus and leadership to meeting its own self-imposed deadlines. And we will be looking for quarterly reports and answers on this as we move forward.