WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A cozy relationship between Southwest Airlines officials and the manager of a Federal Aviation Administration office put passengers in danger of catastrophe, an FAA whistle-blower told Congress on Thursday.
FAA inspector Bobby Boutris says his concerns about Southwest Airlines inspections were not heeded.
1 of 3 FAA inspector Bobby Boutris testified that his supervisor, Douglas Gawadzinski, repeatedly rebuffed his reports of inspection requirement violations.
"Allowing an airline to fly passengers in an aircraft with a known unsafe condition puts the lives of the flying public in jeopardy," Boutris told a House committee. "And in my opinion it is dereliction of duty and should be criminal."
Gawadzinski was friends with Southwest compliance official Paul Comeau, who previously had worked with Gawadzinski at the FAA, Boutris said.
When it was learned that some Southwest planes had flown too long without undergoing required inspections, Comeau pressed Gawadzinski to remove Boutris from the FAA office responsible for keeping an eye on Southwest, Boutris testified.
"It was obvious that Southwest Airlines wanted to cherry-pick the inspector for this inspection," Boutris told the committee.
"There is an ethics issue here," he added.
Southwest self-reported the violation but failed for 10 days to take the affected planes out of service, which should have been done immediately, Boutris said. The airline and Gawadzinski then lied about the resolution of the problem, he testified. Watch Boutris accuse the airline and his boss of lying »
Another whistle-blowing inspector, Douglas Peters, said another supervisor subtly threatened him for vowing to report that colleagues were allowing unsafe planes to fly.
Peters said the supervisor pointed to a photo of Peters' son and said: "This is what's important: family and flying."
As Boutris poured him a glass of water and gently patted him on the back, a visibly emotional Peters said his boss added: "You have a good job here and your wife has a good job. ... I'd hate to see you jeopardize yours and her careers trying to take down a couple of losers."
The FAA has shown a dangerous lack of enforcement, resulting in thousands of flights on potentially unsafe and un-airworthy aircraft, said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minnesota, who called Thursday's hearing.
"FAA needs to clean house from top to bottom, take corrective action, hire more inspectors and give them a safety mission," said Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
"There is a larger problem than one rogue guy," committee member Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, added later.
A congressional investigation found that discount airline Southwest kept dozens of aircraft in the air without mandatory inspections -- and in some cases, with defects the inspections were meant to detect. Learn more about safety inspections »
The airline later found that six of the 47 planes had fatigue cracks, the FAA said.
Cracks in the fuselage could have caused the planes to lose air compression or even come apart in midair, Boutris said.
"It's a sad day when employees have to seek whistle-blower protection to do their job," said Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Illinois, a member of the committee.
Federal law protects employees from being fired or otherwise punished for reporting misbehavior by their superiors.
You certainly got to know this if you lost someone in an air crash. This is old news and applies to the entire industry.
WASHINGTON "” Three veteran Federal Aviation Administration inspectors told lawmakers on Thursday that their agency supervisors looked the other way while Southwest Airlines neglected to inspect planes as required, and continued to fly them even after discovering cracks in some of them.
The inspectors said that their F.A.A. supervisors knew of the problems but had discouraged them from pursuing the safety problems or addressing problems within the agency, even threatening to relieve them of their duties.
One was removed from his job as an office manager and another was encouraged to apply for a transfer, they said. A third said he was temporarily removed from his role overseeing Southwest, as a result of complaints by the airline.
The F.A.A. has since proposed a fine of $10.2 million against Southwest, because it flew tens of thousands of flights without performing inspections of the fuselage skin. The inspections were meant to prevent a repeat of a 1989 accident, when a huge chunk of skin peeled off an Aloha Airlines plane in flight.
Southwest later notified the agency that it had stopped flying the planes, while in fact it continued to fly them.
The F.A.A. then announced an "audit" of compliance with its orders, leading Delta and American to ground scores of planes because of the possibility of missed inspections. United Airlines had to re-evaluate seven Boeing 747's, for a slightly different reason when an inspector found that their altimeters had been checked by a repair shop owned by Korean Air Lines using an instrument that had not been calibrated.
The only carriers that have been affected are American.
The testimony, some of which had been foreshadowed by news accounts, came amid intense scrutiny of airlines' inspection procedures and sharp criticism from Congress of the quality of F.A.A. oversight. Southwest and other airlines have suspended hundreds of flights while undertaking inspections that critics say were long overdue.
The hearing was held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, whose chairman, James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, said, "The opening paragraph of the F.A.A. act of 1958 directs the newly established agency to maintain safety at the highest possible level. Not the level the airlines want to spend money on, not the level the airlines think is O.K., but the highest possible level." He said the agency had become too "cozy" with the airlines.
The agency has acknowledged some of the problems cited by the inspectors. Nicholas A. Sabatini, the associate administrator for safety, said before the hearing that "it was a failure on the part of individuals in my organization and mid-level managers at Southwest." But the system, he said, is still extremely safe.
Part of the problem, according to several safety experts, is that the F.A.A. now relies heavily on the airlines to inspect themselves and report their problems. They say the agency's 2,800 inspectors spend more time reviewing airline records than checking airplanes.
The criticism has been unusually severe given that the airlines have had extremely good safety record in recent years, with no major crashes since 2001.
The agency has stressed that it is attempting to find safety problems before crashes rather than afterward.
In fact, the rate of fatal accidents per flight dropped by more than 60 percent in the 10 years ended on Sept. 30, 2007.
But the inspectors insisted that problems run deeper. "Despite the fact that our databases are full of positive findings, the current events are proving us wrong," said one inspector, Charalambe Boutris. The airlines failed to comply with "Airworthiness Directives," or ADs, orders that are issued after crashes or after one carrier discovers a problem do that fixes are instituted on all planes. Mr. Boutris pointed out that there were "hundreds of aircraft taken out of service with AD compliance issues."
"The majority of the AD's are the result of catastrophic accidents, and as the industry saying goes, AD's are written in blood," he said.
"No supervisor can do what my supervisor was doing without the support of fellow inspectors and the division management team," he said.
Another inspector, Douglas E. Peters, testified that even after the F.A.A. manager had been removed, the replacement manager threatened him. The replacement pointed to a photo of Mr. Peters' family, pointed out that both Mr. Peters and Mr. Peters' wife had good jobs at the F.A.A., and said, "I'd hate to see you jeopardize yours and her careers" by pursuing ethics complaints against F.A.A. managers
Southwest, which was also scheduled to testify, has acknowledged errors but maintains it did nothing unsafe. Herb D. Kelleher, executive chairman of the company, said before the hearing began, ""Regulatory non-compliance and being unsafe are two different things."
In a generally improving safety picture, maintenance-related crashes are a fraction of the total. There have been three in recent history.
A ValuJet DC-9 crashed in May 1995, in the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 on board, because poorly supervised maintenance workers mishandled hazardous plane parts, causing a fire on board. In January, 2000, an Alaska Airlines MD-80 crashed off the California coast because a tail assembly had been mislubricated, killing all 88 on board.
And in January 2003, a commuter plane crashed on takeoff in Charlotte, N.C., killing all 23 on board, partly because of a maintenance error in connecting the moveable parts of the plane's tail to the control yoke in the cockpit. The plane was listed as US Airways Express Flight 5481, but was operated by Air Midwest Airlines, a subsidiary of Mesa Air Group of Phoenix.
The last crash of a big airliner in the United States was in November 2001, when an American Airlines flight leaving Kennedy International Airport for the Dominican Republic came down in Queens. It is the longest period without a major jet crash in airline history.
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