(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) chaired a hearing of her Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Subcommittee to review the safety and modernization performance of the FAA.  

FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell and DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel testified at the hearing.  The FAA has come under frequent criticism recently for ignoring inspector complaints, the nature of their relationship with the airline industry, and the effects their actions have had on airline passengers.  

Murray held the hearing to get answers on why the funding her subcommittee provides is not being better spent to serve the passengers, airlines, and taxpayers.  She also explored the treatment of FAA inspectors, including the charges that their complaints were suppressed and that airlines were able to concoct phony complaints to retaliate.  And she discussed how a lack of clarity and consistency in FAA enforcement has cost airlines and passengers.

Senator Murray’s opening statement from the hearing follows:

These are troubling times for airline passengers and the entire aviation industry. In the last year, we have seen jet fuel prices climb by almost 70 percent.  In the last two weeks, three airlines declared bankruptcy.  And two days ago, we learned of a planned mega-merger to create the nation’s largest U.S. airline.  More mergers could be announced soon. With all this disruption, the millions of passengers who take to the skies in our country each year need to be sure that the agency in charge of enforcing safety is consistent and effective.

But instead, the FAA has been inconsistent and erratic.  And passengers are angry and upset. I am very concerned.  I – and the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General – have been sounding the alarm for years about problems in the FAA’s flight standards program.

Yet we have seen repeated problems. Most recently, we learned that managers at the FAA allowed Southwest Airlines to violate federal safety regulations.  And it punished the safety inspector who tried to bring the violations to light.  Some observers inside the government have tried to blame it all on a few bad apples at one inspection office in Dallas. Texas. But I don’t buy it.  And I want to know how the FAA will ensure to the flying public that it is meeting its core duty to enforce safety. 

For four of the last seven years, this Subcommittee has provided more money for safety oversight than the Bush Administration or its FAA Administrators have requested.  It didn’t matter if Senator Shelby was Chairman, if I was Chairman, or if Senator Bond was Chairman. 

We all heard the same concerns raised by the Inspector General, the General Accounting Office and others.  And we responded – we tried to boost the number of safety inspectors, and we increased the quality and amount of training, and the thoroughness of their work.  That is why, as I reviewed the Inspector General’s testimony, I was particularly disturbed by the number of times that the IG’s office discovered the very same problems, year after year, with the FAA’s flight standards program. 

In other words – despite repeated commitments to fix the problems by the FAA – the problems didn’t all get fixed. 

The Inspector General will testify that, in 2002, and then again in 2005, his auditors found an inadequate number of inspections, inappropriate targeting of inspections, and safety-critical inspections that just weren’t done.  In 2005, the IG found that 26 percent of the necessary inspections identified by the FAA’s own safety targeting system were not done and half of those inspections were considered safety critical.  Those audits prompted the Inspector General to recommend that FAA headquarters take a more hands-on, supervisory approach to make sure that individual inspection offices were getting the job done. 

The FAA, of course, said it was committed to fixing the problem.

Well, now it’s 2008 and we are finding many of the same problems.  One of the most glaring is that FAA failed to follow its own requirement that every airline be reviewed every five years to ensure it was complying with airworthiness directives.  These directives are a critical component of aviation safety. 

At Southwest, the U.S. airline with the most domestic flights, this five-year review hasn’t taken place since 1999 – nine years ago.  And the FAA’s management structure either didn’t know about it – or did nothing about it.  We need an FAA that actually fixes problems as they are found rather than one that rushes into a public relations campaign to assure everyone that there isn’t a problem. 

Last year, we discussed the FAA’s habit of glossing over problems with its capital programs.  Last year, FAA continually boasted that 100 percent of their projects were on-time and on-budget, even when they were costing hundreds of millions of dollars more than originally advertised. 

This year, in the wake of the findings at Southwest Airlines, Acting Administrator Sturgell ordered a complete review of whether airlines were complying with certain airworthiness directives.  When I first heard of his plan, I questioned why the Agency needed to double-check its work.  The taxpayers and this Subcommittee paid for full compliance the first time.  

Since those initial reviews, the FAA is now boasting a 99 percent compliance rate.  But I don’t think that figure gives much comfort to the people who thought they were getting 100 percent safety compliance the first time around.  And it isn’t going be much comfort to the thousands of airline customers who found themselves with cancelled flights last week missing business meetings, weddings, or the opportunity to get home to their kids – because of this last-minute review. 

Last Wednesday, close to one in every 10 domestic passengers saw their flights cancelled. And it may have affected more than half a million passengers.  But this wasn’t just an inconvenience.  This incident raised serious concerns in my mind – and for many others – about the FAA.

The FAA had initially given the airlines 18 months to fix the problem with wire bundles in the wheel wells of MD-80s. But after the discoveries at Southwest, the FAA announced that the airlines couldn’t wait another day to fix it.  This was very troubling to me.  I want to know why – if it wasn’t safe enough to fly for one more day – did FAA give the airlines 18 months to fix the problem in the first place?

As someone who flies across the country twice a week – and who represents constituents who fly – how are you going to restore passengers’ faith in the FAA? Your Number One job is to ensure the airlines are safe for the flying public.  And that means that safety regulations must be clearly defined and enforced consistently.

FAA inspectors also deserve respect.  They are not just your employees.  They are stewards of the public safety.  And they deserve the support of their superiors. The supervisors in the FAA inspection force are supposed to be agents for safety, not the agents of the airlines.   They are supposed to support the findings of their own employees and make sure that those findings are turned into safe operating practices. 

One of the IG’s most egregious findings was that both Southwest and Northwest airlines were actually able to concoct phony complaints against safety inspectors they thought were being too aggressive. 

The result was that the inspectors were taken off the case. That must never be allowed to happen. 

The airlines deserve clarity and consistency from the FAA.

The taxpayers deserve accountability on the part of senior government officials when these lapses are discovered and left unaddressed.  And they deserve better than empty promises that problems have been fixed – or will be fixed – when they have not.  And finally, this Subcommittee deserves answers about why FAA’s management still doesn’t get it right – even though this Subcommittee continually adds funding and cites these problems year after year. 

I hope we will get some answers to those questions this morning.