This story has been updated to include American Airlines’ response.
DALLAS (AP) — A government watchdog says a federal inspector overseeing American Airlines was too cozy with the carrier and did not respond to safety complaints raised by the pilots’ union.
The inspector general of the Transportation Department said that the Federal Aviation Administration inspector failed to respond to questions about flights used to test planes after they undergo major repairs or maintenance. There are no paying passengers on the flights.
Although the watchdog’s report focuses on the test flights that do not carry paying passengers, it is still likely to provide ammunition for critics who have argued for years that the FAA is too close to the airlines it is supposed to regulate on behalf of the flying public. The same Transportation Department office alleged in 2008 that the FAA had become too cozy with Southwest Airlines.
The watchdog said the FAA inspector had been assigned to American for 28 years and grew close to a key supervisor at the airline — even using his government computer to plan an overseas trip with the airline manager and introducing him to the inspector’s family.
A new FAA supervisor saw potential problems with the inspector’s objectivity and recommended he be reassigned. But the FAA didn’t consider it a priority and took four months to act, according to the report, which was released Thursday.
The inspector, who is not named in the report, later retired. American Airlines said it reassigned the supervisor.
In a formal response to the report, the FAA said it accepted the inspector general’s recommendations for improving oversight of the test flights. Clayton Foushee, director of the FAA’s audit office, said the agency acted as soon as it learned of a potential conflict of interest involving its inspector.
While there have been some multimillion-dollar fines in recent years against both American and Southwest, critics want the FAA to issue more fines against airlines that violate safety regulations. Even when the FAA catches violations, the airlines often negotiate them down.
The FAA has preferred working with airlines to ensure safety. Airlines that voluntarily report safety issues or mistakes, and fix them, generally avoid enforcement action including FAA fines.
To support that approach, FAA officials cite the safety record of U.S. aviation: Until an engine explosion in April on a Southwest Airlines jet killed a woman, there had been no fatal accidents on U.S. passenger planes since 2009 and none on a major U.S. carrier since November 2001.
About 100 FAA employees in Irving, Texas, oversee Fort Worth-based American, the world’s largest airline. The inspector general’s report focused on the lone inspector for flights involving planes going to repair shops or being tested after major repairs or maintenance.
American has about 20 pilots who operate those flights, and the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing pilots at American, raised several concerns about the program to the FAA in 2016.
The union told the inspector general in February 2017 that for 18 months the FAA had largely ignored its concerns about what is called the flight-test program. The inspector general began looking into the union’s complaints.
“When we interviewed the inspector about the flight test program, he displayed little knowledge of it beyond describing how great it was,” the inspector general’s report said. An FAA manager described the American Airlines supervisor in charge of the program “as ‘perfect’ and someone who ‘could do no wrong,'” the report added.
American Airlines said in a statement that it changed leadership of the flight-test program last fall and began an internal review of the matter. The airline said it was working with the FAA and the pilots’ union to address the concerns raised in reviews of the program.
Even though there are no passengers on the test flights, union spokesman Dennis Tajer said, “Ultimately these airplanes being checked out does affect our passengers and crew safety, and it affects our company.”