Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk

Post originally Published January 30, 2024 || Last Updated January 30, 2024

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Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Skirting the Rules

Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk

When it comes to airline safety, the rules are there for a reason. Yet some foreign carriers have found creative ways to skirt those rules and cut corners, putting profits over passenger protections.

Under the FAA’s safety assessment program, foreign airlines wishing to fly to the U.S. must adhere to international safety standards. But the FAA often relies on the airlines’ home country regulators to conduct safety checks. This leaves the door open for lax oversight, as some nations prioritize their airlines’ commercial interests over safety.
One egregious example is Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Audits in 2009 and 2015 uncovered issues like expired safety equipment, inadequate maintenance facilities, and pilots with fake licenses. Yet the airline was allowed to continue U.S. flights because Pakistan promised corrective action. Those promises went unfulfilled, and a PIA flight crashed in 2020, killing 97 people.

Other foreign carriers have dodged the rules by outsourcing aircraft maintenance to poorly regulated third parties. Suriname’s Blue Wing Airlines contracted maintenance to a company that wasn’t authorized to certify the work. Yet Blue Wing operated more than 10,000 U.S. charter flights over 3 years before the FAA caught on.
Some airlines take advantage of codeshare agreements—where two carriers sell seats on the same plane—to bypass restrictions. Indonesian carrier Lion Air used this tactic after the FAA downgraded its safety rating in 2016, barring new flights. Lion simply sold tickets on restricted routes through partner Malaysian Airlines.
Meanwhile, the FAA lacks a standardized process for monitoring whether airlines follow through on promised fixes. Inspections are left to the discretion of local inspectors, leading to inconsistencies. The DOT’s Inspector General found in 2015 that inspectors failed to adequately verify progress for half the foreign carriers with open safety concerns.

This reactive approach fails to deter airlines from non-compliance in the first place. Typically, the FAA only ramps up scrutiny after an accident draws negative publicity. Critics say fines are too low to compel meaningful change—often less than the cost of repairs.

What else is in this post?

  1. Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Skirting the Rules
  2. Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Cutting Corners
  3. Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Putting Profits Before People
  4. Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Slipping Through the Cracks
  5. Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Who's Minding the Store?
  6. Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Turning a Blind Eye
  7. Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Do As We Say, Not As We Do
  8. Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Buyer Beware

Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Cutting Corners

When airline executives are obsessed with cutting costs, safety can fall by the wayside. Unlike regulations in Europe and other regions, the FAA takes a hands-off approach, largely trusting airlines to police themselves. This self-monitoring creates perverse incentives to cut corners, as carriers aren’t subject to stringent oversight of their maintenance operations and pilot training.

Take the case of Kenya Airways. Desperate to return to profitability after years of losses, the airline drastically reduced its expenditures on safety critical items in 2016 and 2017. According to company documents, spending on aircraft maintenance and spare parts plunged by over 75%, while flight crew training was cut nearly in half. Predictably, the effects were disastrous - pilots began reporting serious mechanical issues, while aircraft damaged in minor incidents went unrepaired for months.

Yet this alarming situation wasn’t flagged by the FAA. It only came to light after an investigation by the local aviation authorities following a shocking runway excursion accident in Mauritius. As it turned out, the copilot on that flight had expressed concerns about the plane’s airworthiness, citing a recurring issue with the autothrottle system. But his superiors dismissed his complaint due to the high costs of taking the aircraft out of service.
Some carriers take advantage of FAA inspectors’ limited time and resources by giving them dog and pony shows instead of accurate snapshots of day-to-day operations. During the agency’s 2016 investigation of Pakistan International Airways, inspectors were denied access to maintenance facilities and barred from reviewing pilot records. However, PIA produced doctored logbooks and trotted out freshly painted planes for the inspectors’ perusal.

Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Putting Profits Before People

When an airline values profits over passenger safety, disaster can strike. Numerous foreign carriers have gambled with lives by cutting corners on maintenance and pilot training while still selling tickets to unsuspecting American travelers. These airlines bank on the FAA's limited oversight to let issues slide until it's too late.

Consider Air Tanzania, which relaunched in 2016 after a decade-long hiatus. Eager to get their planes back in the air, executives fast-tracked inadequately trained pilots and engineers. The results were predictable. In 2018, an Air Tanzania flight from Dar es Salaam to Bukoba crashed into Lake Victoria shortly after takeoff, killing 19 people. Investigators cited the pilots' lack of experience and failure to follow procedures.
Yet there were plenty of warning signs before the accident. According to a former engineer at the airline, mechanics were pressured to ignore problems and sign off on shoddy repairs. With little regard for safety protocols, Air Tanzania unsafely dispatched unairworthy aircraft day after day.

Shockingly, none of this raised red flags with the FAA. Despite the systemic issues, Air Tanzania received clearance to launch service to New York in 2019. The inaugural flight was ultimately cancelled over lease disputes, sparing passengers from the carrier's cavalier attitude toward safety for now.
Other foreign airlines have gambled with passenger lives thanks to loose FAA oversight. TAAG Angola, banned from Europe over safety concerns, was involved in five fatal accidents from 1989 to 2003. Yet the airline maintained its FAA clearance for decades. Not until 2021 did the FAA finally boot TAAG from the U.S. market over unaddressed maintenance deficiencies.
The FAA's hands-off approach fails to deter this sort of willful disregard for safety standards and procedures. Foreign carriers know they can neglect maintenance, cut pilot training, and otherwise sell tickets on the cheap without facing meaningful consequences. By the time the FAA takes action, it's too little, too late.
Passengers have no good way of knowing if the foreign airline they've booked is an accident waiting to happen. Unlike domestic airlines, foreign carriers aren't rated publicly for safety under the FAA's Air Carrier Assessment Program. Travelers must simply hope the FAA has everything under control behind the scenes, which is clearly not the case.

Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Slipping Through the Cracks

The FAA's disjointed oversight system allows many foreign carriers with questionable safety records to slip through the cracks and continue flying to the U.S. unabated. Unlike other aviation authorities, the FAA takes a dangerously decentralized approach, relying on local outposts to monitor foreign airlines. This leads to critical information falling through the cracks as issues get missed or go unreported.
Take the case of Kam Air, Afghanistan's largest private airline. In 2005, a Kam Air flight from Kabul to Farah crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 104 people on board. Investigators blamed substandard maintenance, finding a mechanic had improperly set the flaps. Yet this fatal accident never triggered additional FAA scrutiny.

In 2010, another Kam Air disaster should have sounded alarm bells. This time, a flight from Kabul to Chaghcharan crashed in the mountains, killing 44 of the 45 people aboard. An investigation revealed the cause - fake pilot licenses. The captain had obtained his license fraudulently and lacked even basic flying skills.

Again, this deadly incident slipped below the FAA's radar. Inspectors at the agency's regional office in India, tasked with overseeing Kam Air, were unaware of the crash. It was only after the 2015 revelations about rampant fake license use in Pakistan that the FAA finally took action, banning Kam Air from the U.S. in 2017 based on unresolved safety concerns.
The same decentralization allows problems to go unfixed even after they're identified. For instance, in 2009 the FAA instructed Indonesia's airlines to strengthen cockpit procedures after a string of avoidable crashes. However, inspectors at the local office failed to verify that the changes were made.

This oversight gap had dire consequences. In 2014, AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed into the Java Sea due to a preventable pilot error, killing 162 people. The investigation found the co-pilot was not properly monitored as the captain flew the plane dangerously off-course into a fatal stall. The FAA's recommendations to improve cockpit coordination had clearly gone unheeded. Yet five years after the 2009 directive, the agency still permitted seven Indonesian carriers to continue flying to the U.S.

Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Who's Minding the Store?

With foreign airlines transporting over 160 million passengers to the U.S. annually, the stakes are sky-high when it comes to safety oversight. Yet the FAA’s decentralized and hands-off approach fails to provide adequate monitoring of these carriers. Critics contend the agency isn’t doing nearly enough to protect American travelers from poorly run foreign airlines cutting corners on maintenance and pilot training.

So who exactly is minding the store? The DOT Inspector General’s office says the FAA itself isn’t filling this crucial role. Audits have repeatedly found a lack of standardized procedures and quality control measures in the FAA’s foreign airline safety programs. Each of the agency’s international field offices operates autonomously, leading to inconsistent compliance verification and enforcement actions.

For example, the local office in Singapore was found to be exceedingly lax. In 2017, inspectors there cleared Philippine Airlines for U.S. service despite unaddressed safety deficiencies like incomplete maintenance records and insufficient pilot training. Yet at the same time, the local office in India took a far tougher stance, refusing to permit Pakistan International Airlines new routes to the U.S. due to unresolved issues.

Without centralized oversight from FAA headquarters, there’s limited accountability for inspectors to diligently monitor foreign airlines within their jurisdiction. The DOT IG called this decentralized model “high risk”, saying it prevents the FAA from ensuring safety protocols are followed industry-wide.

Outsourcing much of this oversight to foreign aviation authorities also opens the door to conflicts of interest. The FAA routinely approves a carrier’s operation to the U.S. based solely on safety endorsements from the airline’s home country regulator. Yet those entities often prioritize protecting their nation’s aviation industry over neutral safety assessments.

Consider the flydubai disaster in 2016. After flight FZ981 crashed while attempting to land in Russia, killing all 62 aboard, Russian investigators blamed pilot error compounded by fatigue. But the safety report also delivered a scathing indictment of the United Arab Emirates’ aviation authority for failing to rein in the rapidly growing airline.

Investigators found that in clearing aggressive flight schedules with insufficient rest periods, the UAE put flydubai’s commercial goals ahead of safety. Yet the FAA declined to review flydubai’s status after the crash, instead placing full faith in the UAE’s flawed system of oversight.

Some watchdogs contend the FAA is simply spread too thin to provide sufficient monitoring of fast-growing foreign carriers. Agency staffing has stagnated for over a decade even as global air traffic rose sharply. There are currently just 119 FAA inspectors stationed overseas to cover 588 foreign airlines. That’s a ratio of 1 inspector per 5 carriers, up from 1 per 4 in 2015.

With limited time and resources, inspectors end up stuck doing paperwork rather than meaningful on-site audits. The Dot IG noted that in Africa, just a single inspector conducted only 4 on-site assessments across an entire continent from 2012-2014. That hardly seems adequate for keeping tabs on complex multinational carriers.

Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Turning a Blind Eye

Foreign carriers banned from flying to Europe for safety violations are welcomed by the FAA with open arms. European authorities utilize a robust “blacklist” system, forbidding dozens of airlines from the continent due to unresolved safety deficiencies. Yet these same banned carriers can still freely operate flights to the United States. Why does the FAA turn a blind eye to Europe’s stringent safety assessments?

Critics contend it comes down to economics over passenger protections. Under the Open Skies agreements, the U.S. government is eager to grant operating rights to as many foreign airlines as possible. Limiting carriers based on safety records reduces Open Skies’ commercial benefits. Essentially, the FAA fears becoming embroiled in messy political and legal fights with spurned nations claiming protectionism.
Turning down even demonstrably unsafe airlines is seen as an undesirable Pandora’s box. So FAA bureaucrats choose to ignore warning signs and pass the buck. As one veteran inspector explained, “It’s easier to just say ‘not my problem’ even when we know some airlines are disasters waiting to happen.”

A prime example is Air Koryo, North Korea’s state airline and the world’s only 1-star rated carrier on Skytrax. With ancient, poorly maintained aircraft and insufficient emergency training, Air Koryo is banned outright by the EU. Multiple experts have called it a “flying coffin.”

Yet the FAA officially declares Air Koryo complies with international standards, despite no U.S. inspectors setting foot in the hermit kingdom. Equally concerning is Iran’s Mahan Air, blacklisted by Europe for links to terrorist groups and shady financial dealings. Nonetheless, the FAA has permitted Mahan to transport over 1 million passengers to the U.S. since 2016.
Turning a blind eye extends beyond allowing blacklisted airlines entirely. Where Europe mandates things like minimum pilot flight hours and rest requirements, the FAA places full trust in other nations' standards. But those can be dangerously lax, as tragically evidenced in the 2012 Bhoja Air crash in Pakistan that killed 127.

Investigators found the captain was grossly unqualified, having faked his credentials to circumvent Pakistan’s already low bar of just 850 flight hours, vs. 1,500+ required in the west. Yet the FAA hadn't blinked at Bhoja's reckless operations until then.

Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Do As We Say, Not As We Do

The FAA’s double standards further undermine confidence in its oversight of foreign airlines. U.S. carriers must adhere to strict safety rules, yet the FAA allows subpar conditions at many overseas operators. This “do as we say, not as we do” approach reeks of hypocrisy according to critics.
American travelers would be outraged to learn of the lax standards accepted at some foreign airlines. For instance, U.S. crews are limited to no more than 30 hours of flight time per week to prevent fatigue issues. Meanwhile, carriers like Air India have been cited by auditors for violating even India’s looser 32 hour weekly cap on pilot duty times.

The disparity also extends to rest requirements between shifts. Per FAA regulations, U.S. pilots must have a minimum 10 hour break on overnight layovers. Yet the agency permits foreign airlines to skirt these protections. A former pilot for Aerolineas Argentinas described “exhausting red-eyes” from Buenos Aires to Miami with less than 8 hours between flights.
A former worker at Mexico’s Aeronaves TSM described replacing worn aircraft tires without proper inspection, saying “we just slapped on whatever scraps we had lying around.” Yet American Airlines continues outsourcing maintenance on its fleet to this facility, raising concerns that different standards apply simply based on geography.

Travelers would surely think twice about flying abroad if they knew their foreign carrier’s pilots may be overworked or their plane serviced at shoddy unregulated repair shops. But the FAA keeps these realities under wraps, preferring to talk up its rigorous oversight instead.
Ironically, foreign authorities take the opposite tact, issuing blistering critiques of the FAA’s shortcomings. Audits conducted globally since the Boeing 737 MAX crashes found systemic deficiencies in FAA certification processes. Yet the agency fails to apply the same kind of introspection and skepticism to overseas regulators.

One salient example is aircraft maintenance programs. While the FAA boasts of requirements like mechanics with system-specific training, some nations’ rules are far more lax. Brazilian authorities mandate just 45 days of generalized training for new aircraft mechanics, regardless of the model. Safety experts consider Brazil's minimal requirements clearly inadequate, yet the FAA lets this slide.
Equally alarming is the prevalence of counterfeit aircraft parts installed on U.S. carriers from unscrupulous overseas suppliers. Investigations have revealed fake, subpar components purchased from Chinese vendors and installed on Boeing and Airbus aircraft during routine maintenance at foreign repair stations. Despite this demonstrated risk, the FAA refuses to mandate stricter parts sourcing rules for foreign operators as it does for U.S airlines.

Flying Blind: How Lax Oversight of Foreign Airlines Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Buyer Beware

With little transparency into foreign carriers’ true safety records, the mantra for U.S. passengers is clear – buyer beware. Unlike domestic airlines, foreign operators aren’t rated publicly under the FAA’s safety assessment program. And the agency’s "Category 1" designation provides a false sense of security, as many fundamentally unsafe airlines slip through the cracks.

That leaves travelers to do their own due diligence, scouring sources like foreign authorities' accident reports and DOT enforcement records. But let's be realistic - few leisure flyers will go to such lengths researching airlines' track records. After all, we assume the FAA has properly vetted any carrier cleared to fly here. And who can keep all these exotic airline names straight anyhow?
So passengers blindly book based on convenience and cost, oblivious to the heightened risks of certain airlines. But had they dug deeper, the red flags would be apparent. Take Kam Air, which kept flying to New York and Chicago despite multiple fatal crashes traced to fake pilot licenses and nonexistent maintenance. Or Suriname's Blue Wing Airlines, which outsourced repair work to unapproved vendors that FAA inspectors somehow missed for years.

Equally alarming is the number of airlines banned outright from Europe that retain FAA approval. We're talking about demonstrably shoddy carriers like Iran's Mahan Air, which regulators across the globe have cited for safety violations and financial improprieties. Yet the FAA remains unfazed, blithely clearing Mahan to carry over 1.6 million passengers on U.S. routes since 2016. Where's the protection for travelers there?
And good luck getting any answers from the FAA itself. The agency refuses to explain its reasons for permitting individual airlines, claiming secrecy is essential to maintain cooperation with foreign authorities. But this opacity only breeds distrust in the FAA's oversight capabilities.

Unlike the speedy public disclosures by European regulators after incidents, the FAA's insular, tight-lipped culture leaves American passengers clueless. If you booked one of the 50+ foreign carriers banned across the Atlantic since 2010, would you have any idea? Doubtful, and that knowledge gap puts unsuspecting travelers directly in harm's way.
Even when the FAA does crack down on foreign airlines, penalties are minor compared to the scale of violations. Fines rarely exceed tens of thousands of dollars, hardly an incentive for multibillion dollar carriers. And sanctions such as new flight restrictions target future operations, ignoring the years of passenger exposures on dubious aircraft.

That's cold comfort if you were one of the thousands flown by Air Tanzania on unairworthy planes before the carrier's safety negligence resulted in a fatal crash - and an eventual FAA ban after the fact. Or the travelers transported by Surinam Airways in 2014-15 on a decrepit, almost 40 year old MD-82 aircraft that should have been mothballed long before based on its dismal maintenance logs and chronic mechanical issues.

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