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.
No. 1 to FAA
Develop and implement root cause analysis training for inspectors more in line with training in the aviation industry.
No. 2 to FAA
Develop and implement a management control to ensure that inspectors maintain the link between the compliance action and the corrective action validation inspection within its inspection databases.
No. 3 to FAA
Develop and implement a management control to ensure inspectors require air carriers to provide written root cause analyses and that these analyses do not specifically identify human factors issues as root causes.
No. 4 to FAA
Develop and implement a management control to ensure that inspectors do not send compliance action close out letters until the corrective actions have been completed and validated.
No. 5 to FAA
Develop and implement a team inspection approach in order to periodically assess the air carrier's Safety Management System.
No. 6 to FAA
Develop and implement Safety Management System training for inspectors that is specifically designed to aid inspectors in evaluating air carrier risk assessments.
No. 7 to FAA
Revise the Safety Management Systems data collection tool to allow inspectors to perform more detailed reviews and accurately document the results of these reviews.