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.
"It's not to the point where you can say every airplane going up is going to crash," Goglia said. "But it does raise the risk, bit by bit."
FAA officials insist they do closely monitor Northwest's Detroit hub. "We are there, day and night," Cory said.
But she acknowledged that much of the agency's monitoring is from afar. Even on days when no inspector is at Metro, inspectors analyze mechanical data via computer in Minnesota, where Northwest is headquartered.
The agency has moved in recent years to what Cory called a "risk-management type of system that puts more emphasis on making sure air carriers have a good system and they're self-auditing."
Focus on problems
Inspectors rely on data to spot problems, then focus inspections where there is an emerging pattern of malfunctions or bad practices.
For example, if airline records show that left tires on 747s are wearing away faster than expected, an FAA inspector might identify the tires as a risk area. The inspector will check maintenance records and aircraft logbooks, interview the mechanics responsible for tire maintenance, and might watch how they change and check tires and keep records.
"We're watching them, yes, and we're monitoring them," Cory said. "But we're also saying to the airline, 'Are you doing what you need to do in terms of quality control and assurance, instead of us doing it for you?' "
For all the advances in aviation technology, though, mechanics and safety experts say there is no substitute for walking the tarmac, eyeballing the engine and quizzing the mechanics.
"There is some validity to looking at the statistical data, but I think there still might be a need for a little more oversight and local presence," said Professor Dawna Rhoades, who researches maintenance issues at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. "Numbers don't always tell you a great deal."
Goodrich, with the FAA inspectors union, said showing up is half the battle. "If we're there, people will act differently; it's human nature," she said.
The Northwest strike hit during a period of record travel at Metro Airport. More than 18 million people passed through Metro in the first six months this year.
"Every gate is jammed," said Bob Rose, a striking Northwest mechanic and president of the local unit of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. "You're running from plane to plane to plane."
The June audit, conducted by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation, noted that "pilots and flight crews are flying more hours, and aircraft are being utilized for more hours a day."
Airlines are shortening gate turnaround times between flights -- a practice that has allowed more flights, but provides less time for aircraft brakes to cool and for mechanics to detect problems. Auditors alluded to "incidents ... that may be precursors to potentially more serious incidents."
In Detroit, where union officials say Northwest cut its mechanics staff from 535 to 460 in the two years before the strike, mechanics describe their days as often being a scramble from gate to gate as they fix problems ranging from broken reading lights to failed power generators.
One morning earlier this month, Northwest mechanics recalled rushing to get a plane from Minneapolis that landed with a failed main power generator on its way to Boston.
With 23 minutes before a 10:33 a.m. scheduled departure, the plane was still on the ground, the cabin dark. Pressed for time, and knowing that a giant 747-400 with a long squawk sheet -- or maintenance list -- was bearing down on them in an hour, the mechanics said, they decided to power the Boston flight with an auxiliary generator instead of repairing the primary one. They said the move was safe and was allowed under FAA regulations.
The aircraft made its trip safely.
On the day the FAA inspector was in Iowa, Pence, the mechanic, said he wanted to alert the inspector to what he believed was an unsafe maintenance procedure on a plane so the FAA would "put pressure on the company" to make changes.
Pence said his concern was addressed two or three days later, when the inspector, Stanley Godfrey, returned.
Pence and other striking mechanics said they saw Godfrey at the Northwest terminal about every seven to 10 days.
Godfrey did not return Free Press calls.
Too much work
Colleagues, who asked not to be identified because they are not supposed to speak to the news media, described Godfrey as a hardworking inspector trying to juggle multiple assignments while following agency procedures.
"It's too much work for one guy," said a Detroit-based inspector who works with Godfrey.
FAA inspectors' duties range from maintenance to flight instruments, to pilots and cabin crews. In response to the strike, the agency increased the number of inspectors assigned nationally to Northwest from 46 to 80. FAA officials refused to detail their maintenance training, saying only that they are trained in all aspects of airline safety.
Some travelers, spooked by recent fatal crashes in Greece and Venezuela and the idea of replacement workers fixing airplanes, say safety concerns give them pause.
As she prepared Thursday afternoon to put her 15-year-old niece on a flight from Detroit to Greece, Mary Kalas of Saline said she worried about who was watching the replacement mechanics.
"I don't think they should stretch" FAA inspectors thin "on the airlines," Kalas said. "I think they should stretch someplace else."
Others were less nervous.
"They're not going to put a plane up if it's not safe," said Dave Kowachek, who landed at Detroit Metro from Harrisburg, Pa., on Thursday morning. Kowachek, 32, said he regularly flies Northwest as a U.S. Army engineer.
"I assume the regular government oversight is adequate," he said. "I assume they're watching over this."
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