Too Close for Comfort?

Former airline inspectors like Bill McNease are not confident that the Federal Aviation Administration is putting safety first.

While working as an FAA operations inspector for FedEx, McNease worried about whether FedEx pilots who were doing extra flying on the side were violating the limits on hours that could be flown. But when he went to his supervisor after learning that no one was keeping tabs on their time, McNease received an unsettling response.

"I asked him directly, again, 'What do you want me to do about this investigation?'" McNease recalled. "And he said, in no uncertain terms, 'Just forget about it. I don't want you to do anything about it. Leave it alone.'"

The former inspector's suggestion that his findings were swept under the rug highlights the intense scrutiny that the FAA continues to face this week about its inspection and safety procedures.

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McNease is among several current and former inspectors scheduled to testify on Thursday at a hotly anticipated hearing on Capitol Hill. They plan to tell lawmakers that they have been pressured to downplay problems and to forego enforcement actions because the FAA is too concerned about supporting the airlines it regulates.

The FAA's oversight of airlines has come under fire since it was revealed that Southwest Airlines flew planes without the required safety checks, even though FAA inspectors knew about it.

Following the Southwest incident, the FAA launched a widespread audit to ensure that other carriers' planes were fit to fly.

United Airlines today became the latest of several carriers to ground airplanes so it could finish tests it failed to conduct on fire supression systems in the cargo hold. United's announcement comes after American and Delta airlines canceled hundreds of flights to reinspect wiring.

Despite heated criticism about its inspections, the FAA today announced it had found 99 percent compliance of safety directives after nearly 2,400 audits at 117 air carriers.

"The bottom line, despite what a small few may imply, is that our system works," said acting FAA administrator Robert Sturgell.

As a result of the audit, the FAA is investigating whether four airlines violated aviation safety rules. Three of the airlines allegedly flew planes without meeting all the required safety rules and regulations, while for one the alleged problem was a matter of paperwork.

To address broader ethical concerns, the FAA also announced new ways for inspectors to make sure their complaints were heard.

"We do want to create a culture that does bring safety issues forward," Sturgell said. "That's what voluntary disclosure programs and partnership programs are all about. We do not want safety issues being driven underground."

William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, said he believes the FAA "has taken a pretty reasoned and logical approach to dealing with this issue."

Others, however, are less satisfied.

"I think that the FAA has abandoned its oversight role and has adopted more of a big brother role in trying to keep the airlines as solvent as possible," said Tom Brantley, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the group that represents the inspectors.

Freelance producer Eric Longabardi contributed to this report.

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