By MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON — Five Southwest Airlines planes grounded last month because they had not been properly inspected had precisely the kind of cracks that the inspection order was intended to detect, an official of the agency testified Thursday to a Senate subcommittee. The testimony, by the associate administrator for safety of the Federal Aviation Administration, was the most explicit statement so far that the epidemic of aircraft groundings had genuine safety roots. But the agency’s troubles seemed to deepen as the subcommittee chairman, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, compared the F.A.A.’s handling of its lapses to the Pentagon’s handling of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and suggested that punishments should reach higher into the ranks. “Nobody at the top ever gets fired,” said Mr. Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce aviation subcommittee, while questioning Nicholas A. Sabatini, the F.A.A. associate administrator.
Mr. Sabatini blamed subordinates for the problem, though he acknowledged his responsibility. Senator Rockefeller, suggesting that heads should roll, remarked, “You’re responsible, but you don’t have to be accountable?” The F.A.A.’s recent decision to audit the airlines for compliance with its rules, resulting in an unprecedented wave of aircraft groundings, has been driven largely by revelations from a House committee, but the Senate was hardly friendlier. Mr. Rockefeller told a panel of witnesses, “It’s catastrophic economically, and it’s an embarrassment to the nation. ‘’
Mr. Sabatini stressed that statistically, the recent past has been the safest period in aviation history.
“We didn’t get here by accident,” he said, with no evident recognition of the double entendre. He attributed safety gains to extensive use of operating data by his agency and the airlines to isolate areas of risk and focus on them. In recent audits to determine if the airlines were complying with F.A.A. orders, “we found we had achieved 99 percent compliance, but it’s the other 1 percent that keeps me up at night,” Mr. Sabatini said. He used stronger language to describe what Southwest had done in flying planes that it knew had not been properly inspected. While the airline’s executives testified under oath last week that there was no safety-of-flight problem, Mr. Sabatini’s prepared testimony said the flights had been putting thousands of passengers at risk. Some senators said, however, that in a data-driven system, under which F.A.A. inspectors mostly review records rather than look at aircraft, the agency might have lost touch with actual conditions. Calvin L. Scovel III, the inspector general of the Transportation Department, of which the F.A.A. is part, said the problems at Southwest, where planes that had not been inspected were allowed to keep flying, amounted to “fundamental breakdowns in F.A.A. oversight.” These troubles, he said, were “symptomatic of much deeper problems in several key areas of F.A.A.’s oversight.”
In addition to the current maintenance crisis, the agency faces severe challenges in hiring employees in large numbers to replace air traffic controllers and safety inspectors; thousands have reached retirement age in the last few years or will soon. The biggest safety challenge of all may be the risk of runway collision, said Steven R. Chealander, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. Mr. Chealander said that the number of serious runway incidents this year was double the level of early last year.