DeFazio, Larsen Press DOT on Safety Oversight Following Southwest Airlines Incident and Media Exposé on Allegiant Air
Today, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Subcommittee on Aviation Ranking Member Rick Larsen (D-WA) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao expressing concerns regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of airlines and aircraft repair stations.
On April 15, CBS’ 60 Minutes program featured alarming testimony alleging a lack of FAA oversight of Allegiant Air. The reporting uncovered more than 100 serious incidents including aborted takeoffs, engine failures, and emergency descents, all within less than two years.
Two days later, on April 17, the longest period in U.S. aviation history without a fatality came to an abrupt end when a fan blade on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 separated in flight, causing debris to puncture the aircraft cabin, and ultimately fatally injuring a passenger.
DeFazio and Larsen are requesting a response detailing what proactive steps the FAA will take to prevent events like the one that happened on Southwest flight 1380 from happening again, a full report on where the FAA’s oversight of Allegiant Air stands today, and a briefing by senior FAA officials regarding the agency’s safety oversight.
Full text of the letter can be found below.
April 19, 2018
The Honorable Elaine L. Chao
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590
Dear Secretary Chao:
Less than two days after a provocative media exposé on weak Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight of a low-cost carrier, the longest period in history without a fatality in a U.S. passenger airline accident ended with the death of a passenger due to an engine failure followed by an explosive decompression. We write to express our serious concerns regarding what these episodes imply about FAA oversight of airlines and aircraft repair stations.
In this week’s accident, a fan blade on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 separated in flight, causing debris to puncture the aircraft cabin. A passenger was fatally injured in the incident. This is the first death on a U.S. commercial airliner since 2009. While more details about the accident will surface in time, the accident bears striking similarity to another accident, also involving a Southwest 737-700, in August 2016. In that case, the front section of the left engine separated in flight, causing debris to puncture the fuselage and a loss of cabin pressure. Thankfully, no passengers sustained injuries; this week, however, we were less fortunate.
This week’s accident came on the heels of CBS’ April 15 60 Minutes program that raised questions about FAA oversight of another U.S. airline, Allegiant Air. During the program, it was suggested that Allegiant may be “the most dangerous” airline in the United States due its “persistent problems,” including more than 100 serious incidents such as aborted takeoffs, midair engine failures, and emergency descents, all within less than 24 months. The program cited aviation experts who believe that Allegiant’s “aggressive business model and a [lagging] safety culture,” along with its aged fleet of McDonnell Douglas MD-80s, have contributed to an unacceptable number of safety incidents.
We have seen the 60 Minutes story play out before. Slightly more than 20 years ago, the FAA and Department of Transportation (DOT) offered repeated assurances to the flying public that a rapidly-expanding low-cost carrier operating older, second-hand airplanes was safe, despite a spate of emergency landings and close calls. As it turns out, that airline—ValuJet—was not safe, and it took the deaths of 110 passengers and crew in a crash near Miami in 1996 to demonstrate that the FAA’s and DOT’s assurances were misplaced. For that reason, we have long been wary regarding the FAA’s safety oversight of fast-growing low-cost carriers operating aging aircraft like Allegiant, yet our staffs have been assured on multiple occasions that the airline has no significant or systemic safety problems. However, the 60 Minutes program suggests otherwise.
Moreover, the government’s own investigative work suggests the FAA still encounters challenges in perfecting its risk-based oversight system across the industry. For example, a U.S. DOT Inspector General report issued per our request last December found flaws in the FAA’s processes and risk assessment tools used to conduct safety oversight of regional air carriers. The report found that the FAA “still had a substantial amount of work ahead” to implement its risk-based, data-driven oversight system involving regional carriers. Although that report was targeted to oversight of regional air carriers, rather than mainline air carriers like Southwest and leisure carriers like Allegiant, how can we be assured that current FAA methods and practices to oversee U.S. carriers are right for such a dynamic and ever-changing industry?
In addition, a DOT Inspector General report issued last year per our request found weaknesses in the FAA’s process for monitoring and investigating suspected unapproved parts and ensuring they are removed from the system and no longer pose a threat to safety. On top of that, the FAA has missed a statutory deadline for applying its drug and alcohol regulations to workers who perform safety-sensitive functions at foreign aircraft repair stations. We certainly hope that suspected unapproved parts or work at a foreign repair station played no role in the Southwest accident.
In light of this week’s events, we request you provide us with the following information:
- A response detailing whether the FAA will take any steps proactively in response to this week’s accident involving Southwest flight 1380 to ensure the safety of the traveling public.
- A full report on the FAA’s oversight of Allegiant that addresses the following questions:
- What enforcement actions has the FAA taken in the last five years against Allegiant for non-compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations?
- What actions has the FAA taken in the last five years to work with Allegiant to address non-compliance issues and reduce the number of mechanical and other safety events the airline has experienced?
- What safety issues has the FAA discovered through its oversight of Allegiant in the last five years, how were those issues rectified, and what steps are in place to ensure they do not happen again?
- How does the FAA’s safety oversight framework account for the unique operating characteristics and business models of airlines such as Allegiant?
- What actions, if any, will the FAA take following the 60 Minutes program to ensure that Allegiant is fit and safe to fly?
- What actions, if any, will the FAA take following the 60 Minutes program to review its current safety oversight practices?
- A briefing by senior FAA officials to discuss the following topics:
- Has the FAA identified any deficiencies in the safety programs (including aircraft maintenance and inspection) of any U.S. air carriers? If so, what are those deficiencies and how will the FAA ensure they are corrected?
- Does the FAA have a sufficient number of personnel in its Office of Aviation Safety to monitor, inspect, and oversee the U.S. aviation industry?
- How has the FAA’s transition to the so-called “Compliance Philosophy” oversight model affected the safety of our system?
- What steps will the FAA take to alert the public to safety issues before they become known through the press?
- What authorities or resources does the FAA need to adequately oversee the U.S. aviation industry?
We request that you provide complete responses to the above questions and schedule the above briefing as soon as possible. Thank you for your immediate attention to this matter.
PETER DeFAZIO RICK LARSEN
Ranking Member Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Aviation
cc: The Honorable Daniel K. Elwell
Acting Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration