Aviation Safety:

New Airlines Illustrate Long-Standing Problems in FAA's Inspection Program

RCED-97-2: Published: Oct 17, 1996. Publicly Released: Oct 17, 1996.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the safety performance of new airlines having 5 or fewer years of operating experience, focusing on: (1) the frequency with which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspects new airlines compared with its inspections of established airlines; and (2) FAA efforts to correct long-standing problems that limit the effectiveness of its safety inspection program.

GAO found that: (1) although data regarding airline accidents and FAA incident and enforcement actions require cautious interpretation, it appeared that, for the review period of 1990 through 1994, new airlines had higher rates of accidents, incidents, and FAA enforcement actions than established airlines during their early years of operations; (2) FAA officials theorized that new airlines may experience more incidents because their fleets expand faster than their ability to absorb growth, train staff, and maintain fleets; (3) FAA national inspection guidelines that were in effect during the review period did not target new airlines for increased surveillance; (4) no clear pattern in the inspection rates distinguished airlines with relatively high rates of incidents and enforcement actions from those that had few or no problems; (5) FAA aviation safety inspection program shortcomings include insufficient inspector training, inadequate aviation safety databases, and the need to improve the oversight of aging aircraft; (6) FAA actions to better target its inspection resources to areas with the greatest safety risks remain incomplete; and (7) initiatives to accelerate the hiring of safety inspectors, strengthen FAA data collection and tracking systems, review FAA inspection operations, and conduct a safety review have the potential to significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the FAA safety inspection program.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA has staffed its national certification team under Order 1100.159 (February 1997), and has been using it to assist district offices in reviewing new air carriers during their initial certification and first year of operation. Under Phase I of its new initiative, the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), FAA will develop and periodically update customized comprehensive inspection regimes for newly certified carriers, as well as for the ten largest carriers.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should instruct the Administrator, FAA, to closely monitor the performance of new airlines, particularly during the early years of operations, and conduct increased and/or comprehensive inspections of those new airlines that experience elevated rates of safety-related problems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997 will assist FAA in overcoming staffing problems attributable to funding shortfalls. The act provides funds to hire and train additional safety inspectors, increase the number of support staff, and implement an improved approach to new entrant airline certification, along with an improved data system.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should instruct the Administrator, FAA, to evaluate the impact of recent budget reductions on FAA critical safety-related functions, including, but not limited to, inspector training, and report the results to Congress through the appropriations process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA contracted with a consultant to develop initial options and recommendations concerning the best means to educate the public and make available information about commercial aviation safety. Based on the consultant's report, FAA announced steps in January 1997 to make aviation data more available to the public. FAA began posting some information on an Internet web site in the spring of 1997. However, FAA's actions fall short of achieving the recommendation's intent. FAA has not developed measurable criteria for defining aviation safety, including airline-specific performance measures that could be used by the travelling public. The information FAA has posted on its website is also limited in its coverage, and some have questioned how easy it is for the public to use and interpret those data.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should instruct the Administrator, FAA, to study the feasibility of developing measurable criteria for what constitutes aviation safety, including those airline-specific safety-related performance measures that could be published for use by the traveling public.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA has taken steps to provide oversight to the implementation of the 90-Day Safety Review's recommendations. It created an implementation plan that outlines the objectives for each of the 37 major and supporting recommendations, and provides milestones and points of contact for each. The plan also links those recommendations to ones made by other important FAA safety studies.

    Recommendation: To ensure the timely and effective implementation of the recommendations included in the FAA 90-Day Safety Review, the Secretary of Transportation should require the Administrator, FAA, to establish: (1) clear goals and objectives addressing the safety review's identified problem areas; (2) measurable performance criteria to assess how the goals and objectives are being met; and (3) a monitoring, evaluation, and reporting system so that FAA implementation of the recommendations contained in the FAA 90-Day Safety Review can be reported to the Secretary and Congress on a regular basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTSB published its final accident classification system in the Federal Register in February 1997.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board, and the Administrator, FAA, should establish a date for completing the ongoing reevaluation of the definition of accident.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NTSB published its final accident classification system in the Federal Register in February 1997.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board, and the Administrator, FAA, should establish a date for completing the ongoing reevaluation of the definition of accident.

    Agency Affected: National Transportation Safety Board

 

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