The FAA has agreed to improve its safety oversight of airlines after a finding by the US Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) that its oversight of American Airlines “lacked objectivity.”

In an audit report dated July 10, the IG’s office found that FAA’s oversight office in Irving, Texas, which is responsible for overseeing the American Airlines’ maintenance program and flight operations, did not adequately respond to safety concerns raised by the carrier’s pilots’ union over maintenance verification flight testing. The FAA requires airlines to verify the airworthiness of aircraft following major repairs or maintenance.

The IG faulted the FAA inspector assigned to investigate the concerns in particular.

“[T]he inspector in this case had developed a personal relationship with the head of the AA flight test program, which created the appearance of diminished impartiality. For example, he made plans, using his government-issued computer and email account, to travel abroad with the head of the program and introduce him to the inspector’s family,” the report stated. “[W]hen we interviewed the inspector about the flight test program, he displayed little knowledge of it beyond describing how great it was.”

The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents 15,000 American Airlines pilots, contacted the IG’s office in February 2017 over concerns the union had with the maintenance verification flight testing, among them that it involved using unqualified pilots. Those concerns, first raised with the FAA, had remained “largely unaddressed for over 18 months.”

Dallas/Fort Worth-based American said pilots participating in the maintenance ferry flight and aircraft evaluation program are line pilots who also receive non-routine flight operations training. The carrier placed the flight-test group under new leadership last fall and began a top-to-bottom review of its operations, which the FAA followed with its own review.

“American has been working with the FAA and the APA to address concerns that were raised in these reviews,” the carrier said. “Last week, we notified the FAA that we have taken action to address and implement nearly all of the recommendations made in order to follow best practices and strengthen the safety of the program.

“Safety is at the forefront of every decision American makes and we are proud of our strong safety culture and safety record,” the carrier added.

Concerns over FAA inspector relationships with the airlines they oversee have been an issue since a 2008 review of the agency’s oversight office for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the IG said. In the aftermath of that audit, FAA took actions that included developing an evaluation tool that uses data from multiple sources to assess its “collaborative relationships” with airlines. However, the tool does not take into account risk factors such as non-routine flight operations and the length of time inspectors have been assigned to an airline.

The FAA agreed to all seven actions the IG recommended to improve its safety oversight of airlines, among them to modify the existing tool used “to evaluate the objectivity of inspectors” to incorporate non-routine operations and length of assignment with the same carrier.

Bill Carey, bill.carey@aviationweek.com