October 20, 2021
Requested by the Ranking Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Aviation Subcommittee
FAA Lacks Effective Oversight Controls To Determine Whether American Airlines Appropriately Identifies, Assesses, and Mitigates Aircraft Maintenance Risks
What We Looked At
American Airlines, one of the world’s largest commercial air carriers, has not experienced a fatal accident in nearly two decades. Despite this safety record, reports of potentially unsafe maintenance practices have raised concerns about the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of the carrier’s maintenance programs. At the request of then-ranking members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Aviation Subcommittee, we initiated this review. Specifically, we examined whether FAA ensures that American Airlines implemented effective corrective actions to address the root causes of maintenance problems and FAA’s oversight of American Airlines’ safety management systems (SMS).
What We Found
FAA lacks effective oversight controls to ensure American Airlines’ corrective actions for maintenance non-compliances addressed root causes. According to FAA guidance, FAA inspectors should collaborate with the air carrier to correctly identify and fix the root cause(s) of deviations or non-compliances. However, in 171 of 185 (92 percent) of cases we sampled, FAA inspectors accepted root cause analyses by the air carrier that did not identify the true root cause of the problem. Furthermore, FAA closed compliance actions before the air carrier implemented its corrective actions. FAA’s oversight controls are also not effective for evaluating if American Airlines’ SMS sufficiently assesses and mitigates risk. FAA requires American Airlines to use its SMS to determine the level of risk associated with maintenance non-compliances. However, we found that FAA inspectors did not routinely or consistently evaluate whether the carrier adequately and effectively assessed and rated risks. This is in part because FAA did not provide its inspectors with comprehensive training and tools for overseeing and evaluating the carrier’s SMS.
FAA concurred with five and partially concurred with two of our seven recommendations to improve FAA’s oversight of American Airlines maintenance programs. We consider recommendations 1, 2, 4, and 6 resolved but open, pending completion of planned actions. However, we are asking FAA for additional information and to reconsider its actions for recommendations 3, 5, and 7.