FAA Inspectors Overstretched, Inspections Overseas, Oversight Overlooked this Long?

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Recent revelations about the FAA and Southwest Airlines (you may be free to move about the country, but at your own risk), and further inspection shenanigans highlight what we already knew but were too focused on getting through security without contracting athletes’ foot to notice: The FAA as a regulatory agency is about as reliable as the old man in the exit row.

And it’s not just inspectors cozy with airline execs; the regulatory system was outsourced years ago, to the aviation industry, leading to a dangerous lack of oversight and conflicts of interest, in short, trouble waiting to happen.

(NTSB warning that inspections are “on a slippery slope” after the jump.)

Two years ago, in a Mother Jones investigative report, Frank Koughan and Jim Morris detailed the systematic gutting of air safety inspections by the FAA. They reported how, back in 2005,

Cash-short airlines increased their outsourcing of maintenance, creating an extra layer for overworked inspectors to penetrate. At the same time, the FAA’s Office of Aviation Safety, facing a $30 million shortfall, shed more than 250 inspectors and is itself outsourcing safety functions long performed by the government. The agency transferred operation of 58 flight service stations—which relay weather and navigational information to small-aircraft pilots—to Lockheed Martin. Thirty-eight of the stations are to be closed and the FAA decreed that manufacturers like Boeing soon would be able to approve their own designs and modifications, a concession the industry had been seeking for years. Self-policing “puts us on a slippery slope,” warned Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). “The primary reason we’ve been able to build such a safe system is the structure we’ve had in place for years. The ultimate responsible party for safety is the government, and this new FAA policy essentially is trying to transfer that responsibility. It may work in the short term, but in the long term the public will see that what we have is a less safe system.”

And here we are years later. Less safe, indeed.

Of note, after the original story broke, the FAA threatened to fire the safety inspector who spoke with Mother Jones and he was put on administrative leave. (He was reinstated after 10 months.) You can read more about the FAA’s crackdown on this whistleblower, and listen to his interview with Frank Koughan at Phoenix’ TIMCO repair station, here.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend