Technicians Union: “Open Watches” Gamble With Air Safety

WASHINGTON, DCOn Saturday, August 6th a brief radar outage occurred during an “open watch” at the Dallas Fort Worth TRACON. During this time no technician was on duty to maintain the four radars that are responsible for monitoring air traffic within the Dallasmetropolitan area.

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Encourages Better Understanding of Inspector Training Needs


WASHINGTON, DC - The Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), the union representing FAA inspectors, today reacted to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that outlined important deficiencies and constructive solutions relating to technical training for FAA inspectors.

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Airline Bankruptcies, Mergers and Overseas Maintenance All Call
for More Safety Inspections, But the FAA Downsized 300 Safety Inspectors

WASHINGTON, DC - In a Senate floor speech today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) urged the Senate to immediately debate and pass the FY 2006 Transportation, Treasury, HUD and General Government Appropriations bill once it completes its work on the pending Defense bill. 

In her remarks, Murray, the Ranking Member of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, focused on one specific problem with the Senate's failure to act:  The Federal Aviation Administration is downsizing safety inspectors at a time when airline bankruptcies, mergers and outsourced maintenance in countries like El Salvador require more frequent and thorough safety inspections.

Her remarks follow:

MURRAY:  Mr. President, I rise today to urge the Senate Leadership to call up H.R. 3058, the Transportation, Treasury, HUD and General Government Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2006.

Make America Strong

We want to make our country strong again.  We want to make our communities strong again.  One way to do that is to invest in our transportation infrastructure, in public housing, and in the other priorities in this bill.  Every day that we go without a Transportation-Treasury bill is a day we fall short of making the investments we need to make to strengthen this country. 

Affects Our Safety

We're not just talking about our physical infrastructure, we're talking about our own safety.  As I'll show in a moment, the Senate's failure to bring up the Transportation-Treasury bill could actually be threatening the safety of every American who flies on a commercial air carrier.

Long Overdue

A floor debate on the Transportation-Treasury bill is long overdue.  The House of Representatives passed this bill more than three months ago.  The Senate Appropriations Committee reported the bill almost two-and-a-half months ago.  Today, we are almost a full week into Fiscal Year 2006 -- and still – the Senate has been denied an opportunity to consider, debate and pass this bill. 

Must Avoid an Omnibus

Mr. President, the Senate needs to debate and pass this bill so we can avoid the unruly and unfair process of funding the government through another "omnibus appropriations bill."  The Senate needs to debate and pass this bill so that all United States Senators, not just those on the Appropriations Committee, can have an opportunity to consider and, if necessary, amend this bill. 

The Senate needs to debate and pass this bill so that we can urgently address the critical needs of our Transportation and public housing sectors including the pressing need to protect the safety of our citizens.

Mr. President, 2002 was the most recent year in which the Transportation Appropriations Bill was sent to the Presidentas a freestanding measure.  I was Chairman of the Subcommittee at that time.  Ever since then, the funding for the agencies under this Subcommittee’s jurisdiction has been enacted as part of a series of unwieldy omnibus appropriations bills.  The process by which these bills were put together did not reflect well on the Senate or the Congress as a whole. 

Last year’s process was the worst of all.  Last year, the Transportation, Treasury and General Government Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2005 was never even debated in the Senate.  Once the appropriations bill was reported by the Appropriations Committee, the bill languished for months while Congress went home for the election.   Then, just before Thanksgiving, Congress reconvened and tried – in three days – to assemble a final conference report for dozens of major Federal agencies –even though the Senate had never passed many of the appropriations bills that funded those agencies. 

I think members of all political stripes in both the House and Senate recognized how poorly the public and the Congress were served by that process. 

Everyone Said "Not Again"

In January, everyone said, "We won't do that again."  We heard it from the leadership of both the House and Senate and from the new leadership of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.  I’m glad they said it back in January, but from where I sit, as Ranking Member of the Transportation–Treasury Subcommittee, it sure looks like we're heading toward another omnibus appropriations bill.  

The bottom line is this: The Transportation/Treasury bill has been sitting on the calendar, ready to be called up, for almost two-and-a-half months.  If we want to avoid another omnibus appropriations bill, we need to call up and pass that bill as soon as we are done with the Defense bill.   

Unfair to Many Senators

This process of sending bills approved by the Appropriations Committee directly to conference without appropriate debate on the Senate Floor is not just grossly unfair to Democratic Senators.

It is grossly unfair to all of the 72 Senators that do not sit on the Appropriations Committee. 

The appropriations bill that Senator Bond and I are recommending to the Senate was approved unanimously by the Appropriations Committee back in mid-July.  It proposes to spend over $137 billion.  These are not just tax dollars collected in Missouri, Washington, and the other States represented on the Appropriations Committee.  These are tax dollars collected from all Americans.  As such, every United States Senator should have the opportunity to debate this bill and pass judgment on our recommendations.  Every Senator should be given an opportunity to amend that bill.

Practical Difficulties of an Omnibus

So we need to avoid an omnibus to ensure a fair process.  There are also some very practical programmatic reasons why we must call up and pass the Transportation/Treasury bill as soon as possible.  Right now, the government is functioning under a Continuing Resolution.  Under the requirements of that resolution, programs funded in the Transportation/Treasury bill are all operating at either – the lower of the funding level passed by the House of Representatives back in June, or the level the program was funded at in fiscal year 2005.  And some observers have speculated that we could be operating under this Continuing Resolution until Christmas. 

I Could List Every Program

Mr. President, it would take hours for me to list all the programs and national needs that will suffer if they are required to operate for any length of time under the funding restrictions in this Continuing Resolution.  If we do not get agreement soon to debate the Transportation/Treasury bill, I may take the time of the Senate to explain each and every one of them. 

Today's Example: Aviation Safety

But today, I want to focus just on the topic of aviation safety and what our failure to move the Transportation/Treasury Appropriations bill means for the millions of Americans that travel by air in this country. 

Mr. President, over the last few years, our national aviation enterprise -- our airlines, our airports and the FAA -- have been under an unprecedented amount of financial pressure.  We now have no fewer than six airlines in bankruptcy.  And if jet fuel prices don’t start declining soon, that number could grow even higher. 

In the interest of cutting costs, airlines have been – cutting back on staff, renouncing their pension plans, and outsourcing an increasing percentage of their aircraft maintenance.  I know that many other Senators who, like me, travel home almost every weekend, have noticed the changes in the service the airlines offer.  Staffing is leaner than ever and flight delays, and mechanical problems are on the rise.

Outsourcing Maintenance

One important area of cost cutting has been the airlines’ continuing efforts to contract out their aircraft maintenance activities to third parties – including many overseas vendors known as foreign repair stations.  In the past, airlines maintained their planes with experienced, veteran, unionized mechanics.  Today, they outsource more than 50 percent of their maintenance work to independent operators.  Airlines such as Northwest send some of their aircraft as far as Singapore and Hong Kong for heavy maintenance.  We have one major carrier, JetBlue, that sends a large portion of its all-Airbus fleet to be maintained in El Salvador, Central America.  America West Airlines, now merged with US Airways, does the same thing.

JetBlue Example

Many of us watched in fear a couple of weeks ago when a JetBlue A320 was required to make an emergency landing at Los Angeles International.  As we all saw, its front landing gear was facing sideways 90 degrees.  Well, Mr. President, that wasn’t the first time the Airbus 320 landing gear did not engage correctly.  In fact, it was not the fifth time, or even the tenth time.  It was the fourteenth time that the FAA learned of the front landing gear of an A320 aircraft not engaging correctly. 

According to the FAA, these fourteen dangerous and frightening mishaps have occurred as a result of five separate and distinct causes.  It is the job of FAA inspectors to find out why those problems happened to force the plane's manufacture to fix the problem.  We can't afford to have an understaffed or overwhelmed FAA safety office.


We Need More Inspectors

Mr. President, our airlines are going through a period of dramatic and rapid change.  That puts an extraordinary amount of stress on the aircraft inspection function of the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Disturbing Reports

We have received a disturbing series of reports from the DOT Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) citing deficiencies with the FAA’s inspection efforts.        

In 2004, the NTSB found that deficient maintenance by an outside contractor, and inadequate oversight by the airline and the FAA contributed to the 2003 crash of a commuter flight in Charlotte, North Carolina.  That crash killed 21 people.   The DOT Inspector General first identified serious deficiencies with the FAA’s inspection efforts back in 2002. 

Just this past June, the IG reported that many of those deficiencies have still not been adequately addressed.  The IG found the FAA focused too much attention on the airlines’ dwindling in-house maintenance functions and not enough attention on the outsourced maintenance activities of their foreign contractors.  The IG found FAA inspectors were spending too much time inspecting maintenance facilities during the day, while the majority of maintenance activities are actually conducted at night.  The IG found the FAA was doing an insufficient job in its surveillance of financially distressed or rapidly growing airlines.  And the IG found the FAA was not able to meet its own standards for frequent inspections because it is short-staffed. 

The FAA Needs to Increase Inspections

In just the last few weeks, the FAA’s staffing shortage has become even more critical.  As airlines enter bankruptcy, the FAA is automatically required to step up its inspections of bankrupt carriers.   Today, the FAA must give heightened scrutiny to the six bankrupt carriers -- as well as four other carriers that are in merger proceedings. 

Not Another Eastern Airlines

Mr. President, following the liquidation of Eastern Airlines several years ago, a number of dramatic and horrifying revelations came out regarding the maintenance shortcuts that Eastern took in the interest of conserving cash in its waning days.  The entire aviation community vowed that there would not ever be a repeat of the Eastern Airlines experience. 

The FAA Should Be Hiring More Inspectors

Now, Mr. President, you would think that with the external recommendations and the record I have cited, the FAA would be rapidly hiring more inspectors to keep up with its growing and challenging workload.  Unfortunately, over the course of the last year, the exact opposite has been the case. 

300 FAA Inspectors Were Downsized

Despite the fact that the Congress granted the FAA’s inspections office every penny that was sought in the President’s budget for fiscal year 2005, the office has been required to downsize by roughly 300 inspectors over the course of the last year. 

That’s right, Mr. President– as the requirements on our FAA inspectors to maintain safety in our skies has increased dramatically, the FAA has been downsizing its inspection force each and every month.

We've Worked to Fund More Inspectors

This unacceptable situation is one that Senator Bond and I pursued as part of our hearing with Secretary Mineta this year.  The House Appropriations Committee did the same.  And I am proud to say that, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, both the Transportation/Treasury bill passed by the House and the bill as reported by the Senate Appropriations Committee seeks to rectify this situation. 

The House Appropriations Committee provided this office with an increase of $4 million over the President’s budget request and committed those funds to the hiring of additional inspectors. 

The Senate provided an increase of $8 million above the President’s request.  We directed that the funding be used to restore safety inspector staffing reductions that occurred during fiscal year 2005. 

Personally, I still question whether we should do even more in this area since we have had two more airlines enter bankruptcy since we marked up our appropriations bill.  But still, these actions on the part of the House and Senate Committees indicate that the Congress -- on a bipartisan and bicameral basis -- is prepared to address this glaring safety vulnerability even if the Administration is not. 

That said, we can’t make any progress in tackling this problem if we do not call up and pass the Transportation/Treasury Appropriations bill.

Without Our Bill – No Progress

Under the current Continuing Resolution, the agency can make no progress in restoring the necessary FAA inspectors to a level that could better protect us.  As I said, this is just one of several reasons why it is imperative for the Senate leadership to call up the Transportation/Treasury bill.  So again, I implore the Senate Republican Leadership to call up the Transportation/Treasury bill immediately upon the completion of the Defense bill. 

We must debate that bill – not just for fairness to our colleagues and to maintain the integrity of the Senate, we must debate that bill and pass it so as to ensure the safety of our citizens.


PASS represents more than 11,000 employees of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense who install, maintain, support and certify air traffic control and national defense equipment, inspect and oversee the commercial and general aviation industries, develop flight procedures and perform quality analyses of the aviation systems. For more information, visit the PASS website at www.passnational.org.

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