FAA: Expensive Safety Rules Don't Always Work
P H O E N I X, April 11 — Federal safety rules cost airlines a lot of money and may not always make traveling safer, a Federal Aviation Administration official said late on Wednesday.
At an airline conference where a Delta Air Lines Inc. official had complained about the surging cost of complying with FAA rules, a top FAA safety official conceded the Delta official had a point.
"We're sympathetic to the problem. We don't know if there is an easy solution," Dave Cann, FAA manager of continuous airworthiness maintenance, told Reuters.
"I do accept the [Delta] comment. It's well founded and I agree. But I don't have an answer on how to fix that right now," Cann said.
Cann noted that Congress ultimately sets the FAA's agenda, which includes a mandate for safe travel.
At the same conference on Wednesday, Delta Chief Operating Officer Frederick Reid said his airline, the No. 3 U.S. carrier, had spent $70 million complying with FAA airworthiness directives in 2001, five times what it spent in 1997.
"This is not a safety issue. Safety statistics for the industry have remained relatively constant despite the increased regulation and our industry has demonstrated over many years its commitment to safety," Reid said.
Airworthiness directives, often issued in cooperation with manufacturers, order changes as simple as swapping out certain parts more frequently or as complex as removing the tail of a jetliner to look for cracks deep inside the structure.
Officials of two other major airlines agreed that the FAA at times issues questionable orders, but both backed the agency's strong mandate for improving safety.
At No. 4 U.S. carrier Northwest Airlines Corp., which operates scores of jets more than 20 years old, the FAA has helped identify procedures to control corrosion and monitor aging wiring, which can create a fire hazard.
"We have a foot in both camps," said Kirk Thornburg, director of DC-9 fleet engineering at Northwest. "You'll get a very pure perspective that there were changes we needed to do and they've added quite a lot to our maintenance program.
"The foot in the other camp is I think I have seen individual ADs where I haven't quite seen the impact on my fleet in particular."
Some types of air safety directives are issued quickly and embraced by the industry immediately while other rules can take an eternity to develop.
For instance, the FAA has taken several years to update the number of hours commercial pilots can work in one day.
A post-Sept. 11 rule to strengthen cockpit doors on commercial planes to keep out intruders has triggered controversy between regulators and industry over costs, which could run into the tens of millions of dollars.
Industry officials typically want their concerns heard before implementing new rules, or at least they want to see solid data supporting the changes.
"There are a lot of good ADs [airworthiness directives]. But the data collection and the factual information are not always convincing that we are spending the money on the right location," said Nick Mateo, senior director, reliability, at Continental Airlines Inc.
Nobody likes spending millions to fix potential problems with their airplanes, but that is the price of putting safety first, Mateo said.