Air safety: Mechanical systems demand scrutiny

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Thousands of inconvenienced air travelers may not like delayed or canceled flights while mechanics go over aircraft systems, but passenger safety should come first.

The real question is how it came to be that potentially dangerous conditions have been allowed to develop on aircraft.

Cancellations are likely to spread to other carriers as federal regulators step up their scrutiny of aircraft inspections, after revelations of lenient enforcement have surfaced.

Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III on Thursday said the Federal Aviation Administration had "developed an overly collaborative relationship" with Southwest Airlines.

This comes after acting Administrator Robert A. Sturgell said last month that the FAA should have grounded some of Southwest's older jets last year, saying "at least one FAA inspector looked the other way."

Southwest Airlines has been conducting safety inspections since mid-March, after the FAA ordered a record $10.2 million fine.

While it's inexcusable that Southwest, or any carrier, would overlook potentially dangerous mechanical conditions, allegations of the FAA ignoring them is worse.

FAA inspectors called before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month said superiors ignored their complaints about lax maintenance at Southwest and threatened to fire them if they did their jobs.

FAA inspector Douglas Peters choked up when he told lawmakers at the hearings about a manager who came into his office, commented on pictures of Peters' family being most important, and then said his job could be jeopardized if he didn't look the other way.

Congress should ensure that the only ones losing their jobs are those who didn't do theirs in protecting the public.

The revelations of a too-cozy relationship between regulators and those regulated in the Bush administration's oversight of airlines tracks eerily with the Transportation Security Administration coverups in tipping off inspectors.

The Clarion-Ledger reported in 2006 that luggage screeners were routinely tipped off about security tests at Jackson-Evers International Airport in its series "9-11: 5 Years Later." But after TSA officials tried to cover up these and other lapses, a review by Homeland Security confirmed federal officials cheated on the tests and did not take enough care regarding firearms aboard flights.

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, Mississippi's 2nd District U.S. representative, has called the TSA to account, but the TSA has done nothing but try to stonewall or delay action, despite congressional inquiry.

The purpose of federal oversight of the airline industry is not to inconvenience airlines or the traveling public, but to ensure passenger safety, which should be a mutual concern. Congress should come down hard.

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