Inspector General Audit Finds FAA Inspection Shortcomings

American Airlines’ maintenance operation
An external audit found shortcomings in how the FAA oversees American Airlines’ maintenance operation.
Credit: American Airlines

The FAA is enhancing training and revising some processes to help ensure airlines are responding to issues flagged by agency inspectors and that the agency can track progress.

Updates to air carrier maintenance oversight are being prompted by findings in a Transportation Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) report released Oct. 20. The OIG’s report was based on an audit of how the FAA oversees American Airlines’ handling of corrective actions linked to maintenance problems flagged by the carrier or agency inspectors. Among the OIG’s findings: FAA inspectors did not accurately identify the root cause of a maintenance issue in 171 of 185 events, or 91%, during the March 2016-March 2020 period examined for the report. Human factors was cited as the root cause in 121 issues, even though FAA guidance directs certificate holders to dig deeper and identify specific causal factors.

Part of the problem is a lack of sufficient training. Five of 18 maintenance inspectors interviewed by the OIG said they had no formal training on root-cause analysis.

The audit also determined the FAA does not ensure that American closes out compliance issues before completing corrective actions. FAA inspectors are permitted to close actions as part of approved plans, so long as follow-up inspections are done to validate compliance. But issues with the FAA’s database make it difficult for inspectors to confirm if the follow-up inspections have been done, the audit found.

The OIG recommended that the FAA improve root-cause analysis training for inspectors and develop links between compliance actions and required validation inspections to ensure the issues are addressed. The OIG also urged the FAA to develop better safety management system-evaluation training for inspectors. The agency concurred and plans to have new training and protocols in place by 2023, it said in a formal response to the report.

The OIG’s root-cause analysis findings match results from similar audits of Southwest Airlines and Allegiant Air. The OIG’s 2019 report on the Allegiant audit included a recommendation that the FAA review and, if necessary, modify its root-cause analysis training for inspectors. The FAA planned to address the issue last year, but the OIG lists its recommendation as open.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.