Apr 14, 2008
American Airlines pulled over 300 planes out of service for inspections last week, cancelling over 3,200 fights between Tuesday and Saturday.
The 300 airplanes are MD-80s, some of the oldest planes still flying. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it found wiring problems that could lead to fraying and fires in the right rear wheel wells. All these planes were pulled to check and fix that one problem.
The American Airlines cancellations last week were supposed to show that the FAA was cracking down on safety problems. But what it really highlighted was how much the FAA has let the airlines get away with. The only reason these planes were inspected and the problems checked was that a few FAA inspectors kicked up a fuss.
After two inspectors found that Southwest Airlines planes with cracks in their fuselages were being allowed to fly by the FAA, the inspectors went public. Eventually, the FAA fined Southwest and ordered inspections of all its aircraft. Forty-six Southwest planes were temporarily grounded for inspections. United and Delta were also forced to ground planes for inspections and maintenance.
There is plenty of reason to be worried. The average age of the airline fleet is older and older, and the companies don’t spend money to buy new ones. And the older the airlines’ fleet becomes, the more maintenance the planes need on a regular basis.
Yet the FAA has been cutting back on its inspections. More maintenance work has been contracted out by the airlines. In 2006, over two-thirds of it was outsourced to other companies. That outsourced work is NOT inspected by the FAA.
Not only that, but the FAA is now talking about moving even further toward having airlines regulate themselves!
As one of those FAA whistle-blowers said, this shows “how much in bed the FAA really is with the carriers.”
As a result, there is a smaller and smaller margin of safety for the planes. In other words, the decaying condition of the airplanes is no different than what is happening to the rest of country’s aging infrastructure – a problem that was highlighted by the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota last year and the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.