On a weekday just before the strike at Metro Airport, the McNamara Terminal's main concourse buzzed with thousands of Northwest Airlines travelers whisking through 78 gates onto more than 350 flights.
Only one thing was missing: the watchful eye of a federal safety inspector to monitor the 460 mechanics working on those planes. It was a scene that makes safety experts wince and underscores the Federal Aviation Administration's struggle to complete safety inspections with limited resources.
That day, the lone FAA maintenance inspector assigned to Northwest's Detroit fleet was home on extended sick leave.
His stand-in, whose primary specialty is flight control instruments, not maintenance, was 530 miles away in Des Moines, Iowa, inspecting a Northwest contractor.
"I thought it was strange he was in Des Moines with everything going on in Detroit," said Larry Pence, a Northwest mechanic and union official interviewed before mechanics went on strike Saturday. He said he eventually reached the inspector by phone to discuss a problem: "But these guys are pulled 15 different ways now."
The FAA has devoted more inspectors to Northwest since the strike began. But the move is temporary.
Before the strike, the cash-strapped agency was failing to investigate many of the mechanical problems that can arise on planes, say government regulators and some FAA inspectors.
In June, federal auditors revealed that the FAA completed only three-quarters of the 3,541 inspections planned for the five major airlines in the 2003 fiscal year, the most recent year for which statistics were available. That left 938 unfinished inspections nationwide, including 516 in which specific safety risks were identified. Of those, 108 were at Northwest.
Northwest officials and the FAA counter that passengers have never been more secure. There has not been a fatal crash of a large domestic passenger plane in more than three years, and FAA officials say the agency has carefully monitored Northwest's replacement mechanics for signs of trouble.
"We'll never, ever compromise safety," said Andy Roberts, Northwest's executive vice president of operations. "We never have."
Elizabeth Isham Cory, an FAA spokeswoman, said: "This is the safest period in aviation history and we intend to keep it that way."
But John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes, said the FAA's staffing for Northwest operations in Detroit is disturbing, and not uncommon nationally.
"The FAA has been resource-strained for a while," he said, "so it's not surprising that it is staffed so thinly in Detroit."
Like other major U.S. carriers, Northwest has hemorrhaged money in recent years -- $4 million a day, the company says. Northwest and its major competitors have laid off thousands of mechanics and technical workers and steered more work to outside contractors, all while attempting to squeeze in more flights a day. The June audit said the FAA's struggle to keep up with those trends could compromise safety.
"We are down to the nub," said Linda Goodrich, regional vice president for flight standards with the FAA inspectors union. The FAA expects to lose 300 inspectors this year and hopes to regain some in the 2006 budget cycle.
"We can't possibly provide the oversight we're required to do," she said.
Northwest's fleet is also the industry's oldest. Its planes are an average of 18.4 years old, seven years older than those of the other major carriers, according to BACK Aviation Solutions of New Haven, Conn. Roughly a third of Northwest's fleet -- DC9s, many built in the 1960s -- average 34.4 years.
An aging aircraft is not necessarily more dangerous. But older planes require more frequent mechanical checks.
Goglia, a professor of aviation science at St. Louis University, said Northwest's financial woes and sudden reliance on 1,200 replacement mechanics would tax the most savvy maintenance inspector, much less one who might be overextended.
Northwest, which is using licensed replacement mechanics to keep the airline operating during the strike, said its managers ''are in constant contact with FAA officials regarding the safety of our...
Reports filed by federal aviation inspectors during the first month of a strike by Northwest Airlines Corp.'s mechanics challenge assertions by executives that operations are running smoothly.
A week away from what could be the first major airline strike in seven years, Northwest Airlines asserts it can operate without missing a beat if its unionized mechanics are off the job.