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FAA’s lapses disturbing

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The agency charged to protect air passengers' safety appears to be asleep at the switch.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., has gone so far as to decry the "culture of coziness" between regulators and the nation's airlines. Recent events suggest his observations may be spot-on.

Recently, Federal Aviation Administration officials failed to spot Southwest Airlines Co.'s missed airplane inspections. Calvin Scovel, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, says the Southwest debacle was symptomatic of much deeper problems. "The FAA relies too heavily on self-disclosures and promotes a pattern of excessive leniency at the expense of effective oversight and appropriate enforcement," Scovel said, testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

That's probably the last thing one wants to hear about the FAA, given its role in passenger safety.

Scovel's observations were affirmed by others who provided testimony to the committee. A retired FAA inspector who oversaw FedEx Corp. was told by his supervisor not to continue an investigation into possible rules violations by the company and a pilot. "I was amazed," William McNease said in written testimony.

For its part, the FAA has released the findings of a recent audit of the nation's air carriers. Of the 2,392 audits FAA safety inspectors conducted over a two-week period, only 34 raised red flags, and seven prompted the investigations of the four carriers.

While the audit reflects an impressive safety record on the part of the industry, it does not absolve the FAA of staying on top of its watchdog duties. It is true that flying is safer than ever. But it is also true that those statistics could change in an instant if airlines fall behind on required inspections, the FAA fails to police their actions and a commercial airliner experiences equipment or engine failure resulting in a mishap.

News reports about the FAA and the commercial airline industry sound eerily familiar to the Department of Labor audit released earlier in the week that suggested a breakdown at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration concerning the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster near Huntington.

Congress must continue to exert pressure on regulatory agencies to ensure that their interactions with the industries they oversee do not become cultures of coziness. Whether you're an air passenger or a coal miner working hundreds of feet underground, Americans deserve to know that federal regulators have their backs. This week alone, there have been multiple examples in which the relationships between regulators and certain industries appear lacking, if not "negligent," as the Labor Department said of MSHA. This is not acceptable.