WASHINGTON – The head of the Federal Aviation Administration faced withering criticism from lawmakers on Thursday for massive flight cancellations that stranded hundreds of thousands of passengers last week while airlines scrambled to make repairs that the FAA ordered.
Robert A. Sturgell, the FAA’s acting administrator, apologized for the stress caused by the cancellations but said they were necessary to enforce airline safety standards.
“It’s my job to ensure that (passengers) are safe in the air, and that’s what our agency did,” Sturgell told members of a Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation.
But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the subcommittee, questioned the need for the simultaneous cancellations, which came after inspection lapses involving regional FAA officials and Southwest Airlines.
“We need an FAA that actually fixes problems as they are found rather than one that rushes into a public relations campaign to assure everyone that there isn’t a problem,” Murray told Sturgell.
Murray assailed the agency for “inconsistent and erratic” performance on a broad range of fronts despite past assurances from FAA officials that the agency is working toward improvement. She said the agency needs changes “from the top down” to correct problems plaguing the nation’s aviation system.
It was the third congressional hearing since allegations first surfaced from FAA whistle-blowers that regional FAA officials in Texas permitted Southwest to fly potentially unsafe planes that should have been inspected for fuselage cracks. The FAA levied a $10.2 million penalty against Southwest and followed up with toughened oversight that forced American to take MD-80 airliners out of service to make required fixes on wheel-well wiring bundles.
Murray and other committee Democrats expressed impatience with the FAA, lecturing Sturgell for what they said was a long record of broken promises to correct safety enforcement problems.
President Bush has nominated Sturgell to become the FAA director for the remaining nine months of the administration, but his promotion has been blocked in the Senate.