Exemption 10

FOIA case study: Similar requests produce different responses

Posted: March 24, 2011 | Tags: airline maintenance

Seldom is there such a moment of informational bliss in journalist’s job as when a thick, government envelope arrives packed with the results from a long-awaited Freedom of Information Act request.

And rarely is there a more frustrating letdown than a thin FOIA rejection envelope that leaves you utterly perplexed.

I vividly recall the latter such emotion last May when a thin letter arrived from the Federal Aviation Administration. We were producing a FRONTLINE documentary called Flying Cheaper about where the major airlines such as Delta Air Lines, US Airways and United Airlines take their planes to be maintained. Several aviation sources in our 2010 preceding documentary, Flying Cheap (about the Continental 3407 plane crash in February 2009 and the contract company that actually flew the plane), told us we should investigate alleged shoddy practices at some contract maintenance facilities, so we began to check them out.

Our first FOIA foray in Flying Cheaper presented us with a huge hurdle. We had asked the FAA for what we thought was a simple request: a list of the top maintenance providers per airline – information critical to a documentary about where our planes are maintained. 

But a few weeks later, we received a thin FAA envelope with a letter stating that the agency did not "maintain custody" of that list and so could not hand it over. Needless to say, we were at a bit of a loss. 

The FAA, the agency responsible for overseeing the airlines’ safety programs, didn’t own a list of who maintains the planes we fly on? Seemed improbable, but as I read through the rejection, there it was.

Informational bliss, interrupted

We had better luck finding who maintained our planes by trolling through the press releases of these maintenance facilities. They championed their big contracts with the major airlines. We learned, for example, that United Airlines sends its large 777 and 747 jets for heavy overhaul to the Beijing-based facility called Ameco (Aircraft Maintenance and Engineering Corporation).     

So we sent another FOIA request in to the FAA for its safety inspection records of Ameco and a few other large aircraft maintenance repair operations we were hearing about. 

In the meantime, United Airlines’ then President John Tague and its partner Ameco invited us to go to see the Beijing facilities. We began what would turn out to be several weeks of planning logistics with Ameco. We told company officials that we wanted to talk to employees about the quality of the workforce and the worksite and to managers about the competitiveness of the industry and the company’s regulatory compliance records. We worked with the Chinese government to secure our visa and with local companies to secure a camera crew. Finally, after weeks of planning, we had everything in order for the visit.

And then a nice big, thick government envelope arrived. It had FAA on the top left corner and inside, we found inspection reports galore, dating back to 2003. We were ecstatic to say the least. Two weeks before our visit and things were looking quite blissful on the information front.

But there was a caveat….The FAA letter stated that it had alerted Ameco to our records request and allowed the company to redact the documents. FOIA regulations permit, and in some cases may require, federal agencies to notify companies when requests have been made for records relating to the company.

While we are unsure what was taken out, it was clear that an FAA inspector refused to renew Ameco’s license for the customary one year in 2006, citing “systemic non-compliance” with FAA regulations. (In the end, the FAA renewed Ameco’s certification for four months; the company has since taken corrective action and is again fully certified.) We consulted with Linda Goodrich, an FAA inspector who had overseen similar facilities abroad. She read through the reports and had several concerns about the quality of the work and the oversight of Ameco.

We were looking forward to talking about these issues, but shortly after Ameco’s review of our FAA records request, the company canceled our visit. We received this email just days before our scheduled visit.

What is odd is that we were not aware of any similar FAA notices to other companies for the same types of FAA inspection records. If anyone out knows why the FAA might allow one company to redact its records and not another, please pass along your information.

Informational bliss, interrupted, part II…

There was a particulalry shocking moment during the Flying Cheaper FOIA experience. That was when we received a thick brown package from the Defense Department containing a disk with United Airlines audits. 

Turns out, the DOD audits the commercial airlines it flies DOD employees on, so these little-known audits provide another source of information. We had successfully received eight years of safety reports after a Flying Cheap FOIA request. Those reports were critical to backing up what our inside sources were telling us.

So for Flying Cheaper, we sent in a request to receive United Airlines’ audits because we were curious what the DOD had to say about the company's maintenance procedures.

But this time we received a very different response.

The first person we heard from was a United Airlines public relations representative who wanted to know why we had submitted the request.

Our next communication came through the mail: a brown envelope from the DOD containing a CD full of files. I eagerly slid the disc into my computer and opened the PDF.

The expectation of getting useful information from the request was short-lived. Up popped 94 blanked-out pages. DOD FOIA officers even redacted the name of United's CEO, even though his name is in hundreds of public documents, including SEC filings. The redactions left little other than the auditors’ questions. Unfortunately, we were left with the same.

The DOD letters responding to both FOIA requests had a long list of exemptions, but somehow, one batch of fully completed audits got out and the other did not.




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