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FAA Inspectors Claim Agency Was Lax on Safety Enforcement

April 3, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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Veteran Federal Aviation Administration inspectors told a House committee Thursday that safety violations by Southwest Airlines were ignored by their supervisors due to the "cozy" relationship between FAA officials and the airline. An analyst examines federal oversight of commercial airlines.
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RAY SUAREZ: After lapses in the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of airline safety checks came to light, several big carriers have been forced to ground planes and cancel flights.

Today, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure launched its investigation into the matter. Chairman James Oberstar of Minnesota called the issue the “most serious safety violations in decades.”

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR (D), Minnesota: This is not an isolated aberration attributed or attributable to a rogue individual, but rather a systematic breakdown of the safety oversight role of the FAA. It is misfeasance, malfeasance, bordering on corruption. If this were a grand jury proceeding, I think it would result in an indictment.

RAY SUAREZ: The committee heard from a panel of FAA inspectors and managers. They worked at the agency’s southwest regional office near Dallas and were assigned to inspect Southwest Airlines jets.

Testimony focused on the actions of one inspector in particular, Douglas Gawadzinski, who allowed many Southwest planes to fly even when they were not in compliance with federal regulations. Managers suspected him of an overly cozy relationship with the airline.

The committee heard first from Bobby Boutris, a whistle-blower who detailed problems at Southwest Airlines, which faces a record $10.2 million fine for flying dozens of planes that hadn’t been inspected for fuselage cracks.

CHARLAMBRE “BOBBY” BOUTRIS, Aviation Safety Inspector: I performed a review of the aircraft records and I discovered the following. On March 15 — that was the date I was supposed to start my inspection for the ADs 2007 — Southwest Airlines informed my supervisor, Mr. Gawadzinski, that they had discovered that some of their aircraft had over-flown the inspection requirements.

The FAA requirements that Southwest reported that were not being accomplished required inspections of the fuselage on their Boeing 737-300 and -500.

On the first stage of the AD, it states, “This action is necessary to find and fix fatigue cracking of the skin panels, which could result in sudden fracture and failure of the skin panels or the fuselage and consequent rapid decompression of the airplane.”

I’m here to report that more than one FAA inspector along with FAA management had been looking the other way for years. No supervisor can do what my supervisor was doing without the support from fellow inspectors, the support of the division management team who were fully aware of what was going on, and I believe the support of some people in Washington. This should have been obvious.

RAY SUAREZ: Douglas Peters, another FAA inspector and whistle-blower, related the story of a threat leveled against him by the acting manager of the Southwest Airlines certification. Peters was trying to send his concerns up the chain of command at FAA.

DOUGLAS PETERS, Aviation Safety Inspector: He got out of the chair and walked over to my bookcase to where I keep pictures in frames. He picked up a picture of my son that was taken next to an aircraft and said, “This is what’s important, family and flying.” He then pointed to a picture of my family and said, again, “This is what’s important.”

On his way out the door, he made the following statement, “You have a good job here and your wife has a good job over at the Dallas FSDO. I’d hate to see you jeopardize yours and hers career trying to take down a couple of losers.”

MICHAEL MILLS, Assistant Manager, Dallas-Forth Worth, Flight Standards: I also found that the FAA principal maintenance inspector, Douglas Gawadzinski, one of four supervisors who reported to me, appeared to be unusually lenient with the carrier in several areas.

RAY SUAREZ: Mike Mills was a manager and had frequent run-ins with Gawadzinski over his relationship with Southwest Airlines and his lax inspections.

MICHAEL MILLS: The record will show these warnings and request for assistance were ignored, shelved, or responded to with smokescreen events like office audits or forced mediation that did nothing to address the safety implications of what I was reporting.

Soon afterward, I found that Gawadzinski had allowed Southwest to over-fly required rudder system inspections and he had also suppressed this information, which I reported to my superiors.

Their response was a chilling telephone call where I was informed that the region wanted to keep this matter very quiet and low-key. Within five days, I was removed from my position as office manager.

Admitting wrongdoing

Herb Kelleher
CEO, Southwest Airlines
The FAA at the principal maintenance inspector level said we could continue to fly the planes while we inspected that small portion of the fuselage. And we did, and we should not have, and we have learned our lesson.

RAY SUAREZ: Senior FAA officials testified about the agency's role and addressed allegations that the FAA allowed carriers to self-report maintenance problems.

Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel.

CALVIN SCOVEL, Inspector General, Department of Transportation: Lack of FAA oversight in this area appears to allow, rather than mitigate, recurring safety violations.

Partnership programs can help to identify and correct safety issues, using information that might not otherwise be available. However, FAA cannot rely too heavily on self-disclosures.

Weaknesses in FAA's national oversight allowed the problems at Southwest to go undetected for several years. Red flags were flying and should have been warning signs to FAA.

As early as 2003, one of the whistle-blowers expressed concerns about Southwest's compliance with ADs. In 2006, he began urging FAA to conduct system-wide reviews, but FAA did not begin these reviews until after the details of the March 2007 disclosure became public.

In fact, we found that FAA inspectors had not reviewed Southwest's system for compliance with ADs since 1999. At the time of the Southwest disclosure, 21 key inspections were overdue since more than five years had elapsed since the last inspection date.

RAY SUAREZ: FAA's head of aviation safety, Nicholas Sabatini, took his own agency and the airline to task.

NICHOLAS SABATINI, Associate Administration for Aviation Safety, FAA: That an airline of Southwest's reputation would ever think that flying passengers in non-compliant aircraft was appropriate is astounding to me. Even more alarming and upsetting to me is that this was done with the implicit consent of one of my aviation safety inspectors.

And no one in the FAA -- not the acting administrator, not me, not Jim, not Tom -- has the authority to allow such operations. And, frankly, even if we did, none of us would allow it.

It flies in the face of everything we stand for. This is such a fundamental tenet of aviation safety that it is not surprising that the events of last year are receiving the amount of attention that they are today.

RAY SUAREZ: However, Sabatini also sought to defend the FAA's overall performance and its safety record.

NICHOLAS SABATINI: By any standard, this is the safest period in the history of aviation.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: How can the program be called a success when 1,400 flights occurred with cracks in the hull of those aircraft? That is reducing the margin of safety. If you're looking at safety as a system, the system itself has cracks, and they need to be fixed.

RAY SUAREZ: The chief executive of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, later tried to explain his airline's lapses in its safety record.

HERB KELLEHER, CEO, Southwest Airlines: The FAA at the principal maintenance inspector level said we could continue to fly the planes while we inspected that small portion of the fuselage. And we did, and we should not have, and we have learned our lesson.

I apologize to this committee. We realize those planes should not have flown during that period while the inspections were made.

RAY SUAREZ: The man who allowed many of those planes to fly, Douglas Gawadzinski, is still employed by the FAA at a salary of $100,000 a year. FAA officials say they will make reporting of abuses easier for their inspectors in the future.

Assessing the safety of aircraft

John Goglia
Former NTSB Member
On the issue of AD notes -- and that was the Southwest issue -- any item that makes it to an airworthiness directive is, by nature, a safety issue. So those airplanes were at risk.

RAY SUAREZ: For some perspective on the issues raised in today's hearings, we turn to a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. John Goglia has worked in aviation for more than 40 years and has extensive experience in maintenance and mechanics. He's now an independent safety consultant who works with smaller commuter airlines, but not the major carriers.

He served on the Transportation Safety Board from 1995 to 2004 and joins us from Los Angeles.

John Goglia, after hearing both sides from this hearing in Washington, could you conclude that major American carriers were allowed by the FAA to fly unsafe planes?

JOHN GOGLIA, Former Member, National Transportation Safety Board: Well, they certainly flew airplanes that went over the regulations. Whether or not they were truly unsafe is yet to be determined.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we heard Congressman Oberstar talk about a systematic breakdown of the oversight role. In the case of Southwest, six of the planes did need repairs when they finally were looked at. Dozens were long overdue for periodic inspection.

JOHN GOGLIA: On the issue of AD notes -- and that was the Southwest issue -- any item that makes it to an airworthiness directive is, by nature, a safety issue. So those airplanes were at risk.

Now, does that mean they were going to crash in the next flight? The answer is no. But they were at risk; the risk was higher than it should have been.

RAY SUAREZ: When you hear Bobby Boutris' story that he gave 38 separate complaints to his supervisors and got no responses, what does that tell you about how things were working inside the inspection regime at that southwest regional office?

JOHN GOGLIA: Well, listening to him was very painful. That was -- I agree with Congressman Oberstar. I believe that might very well be criminal. That defies any description of what the average person at the FAA believes their job is.

Officials' close relationships

John Goglia
Former NTSB Member
It does call into question how good a program that they had in place at some of these airlines. But we will -- we, the industry, will finally get a handle on all this in the very near future and we will not repeat that again.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the guy at Southwest Airlines, the man in charge of regulatory compliance there, was a former FAA aviation safety inspector and a former colleague of the gentlemen that he had to report to. Does that violate any laws? Or, as of this moment, is that allowed in the relationship between airlines and the FAA that regulates them?

JOHN GOGLIA: To my knowledge, there is no law that prevents that. Personal ethics certainly would prevent me from doing that, and I think the FAA is correct in their action to go to rule-making and to put a law in place that prevents that from happening in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: So you're saying that either one party or the other should have recused themselves, just said "No, I shouldn't work with this guy on such a high-level manner"?

JOHN GOGLIA: That's right. In fact, both parties are probably wrong in this case. He should not have accepted a job, nor should he have been offered a job.

RAY SUAREZ: Can we know whether this is an isolated case? Will the FAA and all the airlines have to examine their internal procedures?

JOHN GOGLIA: Well, from the FAA side, I know that they are looking at themselves very hard. And I know that Mr. Sabatini will deal with this issue. The I.G. is also going to be in there taking a look at the FAA side to make sure that everything is uncovered.

On the airline side, what this has caused was a real review by the airlines of all their operations, and that has led to the delays and cancellations we've seen, because the airlines have found there were some discrepancies in their own operations and they came forward and put their airplanes down until they could sort them out.

So from that point of view...

RAY SUAREZ: So these discrepancies you mentioned, they're being found as a result of an audit. Who does the audit? And who watches it? Is it the FAA looking over their inspection records? Or is this done internally by the airlines themselves?

JOHN GOGLIA: It's done internally by the airlines themselves. We have processes in place for a long time, like the Continuing Analysis and Surveillance programs, that are charged with looking at what goes on in the operation and detecting these deficiencies.

And it does call into question how good a program that they had in place at some of these airlines. But we will -- we, the industry, will finally get a handle on all this in the very near future and we will not repeat that again.

Impact on airline industry

John Goglia
Former NTSB Member
By the very nature of an airworthiness directive, it's put in place because of safety issues. So by over-flying the AD, you violated the law and you're operating an unsafe airplane.

RAY SUAREZ: Other carriers that have grounded planes over the past few weeks include Delta, American, and United, in response to these audits. Should these be considered a different case from Southwest, both in degree and the nature of the problem that it's turning up?

JOHN GOGLIA: No, I don't think so. I think they're very much the same.

RAY SUAREZ: And in the case of Southwest, for their part, the airline has responded and said that this was more a bookkeeping record problem than anything else, that at no time did they fly unsafe planes. What's your response to that?

JOHN GOGLIA: I would not agree with that.

RAY SUAREZ: Why not?

JOHN GOGLIA: Because, by the very nature of an airworthiness directive, it's put in place because of safety issues. So by over-flying the AD, you violated the law and you're operating an unsafe airplane.

RAY SUAREZ: By definition?

JOHN GOGLIA: By definition.

RAY SUAREZ: John Goglia, thanks a lot for joining us.

JOHN GOGLIA: Thank you very much.