COMMENTS: National Airport not Capitol Steps

The Transportation Committee of the House of Representatives hit the jackpot as its hearings into sloppy supervision of Southwest Airlines' safety by the Federal Aviation Administration qualified as Story of the Day. ABC led its Wednesday newscast with a preview of the panel. Now all three newscasts led with the actual testimony. Several safety inspectors from the FAA's Dallas office accused their supervisors of ignoring violations by Southwest. The upshot was that 47 of the airline's aging Boeing 737 fleet continued in service for 30 months when the rules required that skipped inspections should result in grounding.

For all the success of the committee at attracting cameras, the networks treated this as an airline safety story not an oversight hearing. All three networks had their transportation correspondents file, not their Congressional reporters. So they stationed themselves at DC's Reagan National Airport rather than on the Capitol steps. ABC's Lisa Stark (embargoed link) heard "withering criticism" of FAA management for "intimidating and punishing inspectors who found safety problems." NBC's Tom Costello called it "a complete breakdown in leadership in the Dallas office." He explained that a lack of staff means that the FAA itself cannot inspect every commercial jetliner "so the agency relies on the airlines, voluntarily, to inspect themselves and report problems." That system breaks down when FAA supervisors become "too cozy" with the operators. CBS' Nancy Cordes warned that this may be part of "a pattern of excessive leniency" by the FAA.


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