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Under fire, FAA says system works

WASHINGTON -- Facing a congressional inquiry, the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday strongly defended its performance as the watchdog of passenger safety, releasing a preliminary audit that shows that most airlines are complying with federal safety regulations, although four remain under investigation for possible violations.

"Despite what a small few imply, our system works," said Robert Sturgell, the acting FAA administrator.

FAA officials said the law prohibited them from identifying the four carriers pending completion of their investigation.

FAA executives released the audit and outlined new measures to strengthen airline safety before a congressional hearing today into inspection lapses involving Southwest Airlines and possibly other carriers.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plans to question FAA whistle-blowers, Southwest officials and FAA executives. The daylong hearing will focus heavily on what committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., describes as "a culture of coziness" between the FAA and the airlines.

But Sturgell and other FAA officials, while not commenting on the hearing, said the review showed that airlines are complying with 99 percent of FAA "airworthiness directives" reviewed by safety inspectors. The review covered 117 air carriers.

Of the airlines that may not be in compliance, three are being reviewed for possible problems involving wiring in the wheel wells, FAA officials said. A fourth had not submitted a plan to show how it would comply with airworthiness directives for future years.

Both American Airlines and Delta Air Lines canceled hundreds of flights recently to conduct wheel-well inspections for wiring problems as a result of FAA safety checks. The checks were ordered as an outgrowth of the Southwest case. FAA officials refused to confirm whether those carriers were among the four that remain under investigation.

Spokesmen at Fort Worth-based American and Atlanta-based Delta said they did not know whether their airlines were among the four being scrutinized.

"We have not been notified that we are subject to an investigation," said Betsy Talton of Delta. "There's nothing more important at Delta than safety, and we work diligently to ensure compliance with airworthiness directives."

The FAA officials also announced a series of new measures aimed at improving airline safety, including toughening requirements for airlines to disclose problems and work with FAA officials to correct them.

Another measure would give employees greater protection to report problems if they do not feel that they are getting the proper response from supervisors. The Southwest case was instigated by two FAA employees who sought protection under government whistle-blower statutes.

FAA has proposed a $10.2 million fine against Southwest for continuing to fly planes instead of allowing them to be inspected for cracks.

Sturgell touted the penalty -- the biggest ever levied by the FAA -- as an illustration of his agency's aggressiveness, referring to "10.2 million reasons why the critics are simply wrong."

Twenty witnesses, including the FAA whistle-blowers and Southwest Executive Chairman Herb Kelleher, are scheduled to testify at the hearing today. FAA officials released the audit findings and new safety measures at a news conference at Reagan National Airport, with airplanes taxiing outside visible through a giant window in the terminal lobby.

The officials said they were releasing the first phase of the audit and would continue with a more extensive audit that will be completed in June.