House panel leaders introduce broad airline safety measure

Bill would create a whistleblower investigation office within FAA, and require a two-year cooling-off period for agency inspectors who go to work for an airline.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders in both parties Tuesday offered airline safety legislation in the wake of high-profile condemnation of lax inspections by FAA and major airlines.

The bill would follow much of the advice given by the Transportation Department's inspector general, the Office of Special Counsel and FAA whistleblowers who testified at an April 3 Transportation and Infrastructure hearing. The hearing was as part of the panel's investigation into FAA's allowing of Southwest Airlines to operate thousands of planes that had not undergone proper safety inspections.

The hearing brought up allegations that other airlines have cozy relationships with FAA and that the practice broadly undermines federal safety oversight.

Tuesday's bill would create a whistleblower investigation office within FAA; require a two-year cooling-off period between when an FAA inspector can work for an airline, and require FAA to rotate principal maintenance inspectors between airline offices every five years.

FAA would have to update their database used to oversee airline safety compliance and modify its customer service guidelines to delete references to airlines as the agency's "customers."

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., said, "These steps taken together will substantially enhance aviation safety." He said while there are other aviation safety items included in a FAA reauthorization bill that has been bogged down until the next Congress, the ones in Tuesday's bill "are of immediate importance."

Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica, R-Fla., who supports the overall bill, thinks there should be a one-year cooling-off period. "You want people with the best expertise and that expertise can't be stale," he said. FAA prefers the two-year time frame.

Oberstar said the bill is just a first step and that other legislation may be forthcoming once his committee, DOT's inspector general and the FAA complete their investigations.