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The Cozy Relationship

When Congress established the FAA in 1958, it directed the agency to work under two missions: to both regulate and promote civil aviation.

As Congress evaluates new regulation in response to recent safety lapses in the aviation industry, FAA whistleblowers and former transportation officials tell FRONTLINE the core problem for the agency rests in these contradictory missions.

They say the cozy relationship between regulator and industry that has emerged from half a century of the dual mission as both watchdog and promoter has led to an agency culture that is ineffective at overseeing industry.

The dual mandate first garnered intense scrutiny in 1996, when ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing 110.

Safety problems with ValuJet were apparent to the FAA a year before the crash when a ValuJet cabin caught fire. Mary Schiavo, then the Department of Transportation's inspector general, had her office investigate the fire incident, along with a series of other safety violations.

"We found things like duct tape on the planes, cracked windshields and windows, and violations on minimum equipment lists -- things that you must carry to have a safe flight," Schiavo tells FRONTLINE.

She says her office saw FAA regulators offering waivers on numerous safety issues that could have slowed the company's success. "Instead of hitting them with violations, they were propping them up."

Even after the ValuJet crash, Schiavo says the FAA and secretary of transportation "went into protective overdrive." The secretary of transportation flew down to the Everglades and pronounced, "ValuJet is a safe airline," before television cameras.

The National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) investigation into the crash resulted in numerous findings that faulted the company's oversight of contractors and the FAA's oversight of ValuJet.

After ValuJet, a push to separate the FAA's dual mandates was on.

Congress voted to strike "promotion" from the agency's mandate with the passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 1996. However, tucked into the conference report was language that told another story.

It reads: "The managers do not intend for enactment of this provision to require any changes in the FAA's current organization or functions. Instead, the provision is intended to address any public perception that might exist that the promotion of air commerce by the FAA could create a conflict with its safety regulatory mandate."

"Critical Lapses in FAA Safety Oversight"

The regulatory relationship between the FAA and industry was the focus of a key Congressional hearing in April 2008, before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The hearing featured the testimony of two FAA whistleblowers who detailed a "cozy" relationship between FAA management and Southwest Airlines that allowed the carrier to continue operating flights in violation of federal safety regulations. The hearing also raised serious questions about the FAA's implementation of "Partnership Programs," which have relied more and more on voluntary industry compliance and self-reporting of safety violations.

Nick Sabatini, the former FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, tells FRONTLINE that the collaborative working relationship that has developed between the FAA and the airlines has been essential to identifying safety risks and is the reason "we have gotten to this phenomenal safety record."

At the hearing, the Committee highlighted a FAA policy directive called the Customer Service Initiative (CSI), announced by then-FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey in a February 2003 speech. Blakey referred to the airlines as the "customers," saying that part of the initiative was to establish regulatory consistency. "We want to know from our customers if we're not being consistent. We're going to let them know that they have the right to ask for review on any inspector's decision," she said.

If that didn't solve an airline's complaint, the company could also "buck it up" to regulatory supervisors, regional managers, "or even to Washington, if necessary -- with no fear of retribution," Blakey said.

The CSI philosophy was on display in the case of Southwest Airlines, which in March 2007 notified the FAA that up to 100 of its aircraft were flying without adequate inspections for cracks in the fuselage. The company later revised its estimate to 47, but was allowed to continue operating the planes in direct violation of federal safety regulations. Several planes were ultimately found to have been flying with dangerous cracks.

Bobby Boutris and Doug Peters, both veteran FAA inspectors, testified at the April 2008 hearing that their repeated efforts to warn FAA management about maintenance and inspection deficiencies at Southwest had been ignored and that the carrier had effectively sought and received preferential treatment from "friendly" FAA managers.

Efforts to keep the whistleblowers quiet went beyond official rebukes from FAA supervisors. Boutris tells FRONTLINE that a week before he was set to testify before Congress about the problems inside the FAA, his wife received an anonymous package asking her how she would handle the "sudden death of your husband."

"I guess they were trying to discourage me from testifying," he says. "But, I believe in doing the right thing."

Congressional investigators say the Southwest experience was far from unique. According to a committee memo, a "common complaint" from FAA safety inspectors was that "they found it difficult to bring enforcement action against airlines because ‘FAA management appeared to be too close to airline management." The memo says the most common response from FAA inspectors was "I often don't even bother [to bring action], because I know FAA management won't do anything with it."

"Mike Colgan is a friend of this office"

The April 2008 testimony of Bobby Boutris and Doug Peters inspired Christopher Monteleon to step forward. Soon after the hearing, Monteleon, a FAA principal operations inspector overseeing Colgan Air in 2005, filed a complaint seeking protection as a whistleblower with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

Monteleon's complaint detailed numerous safety infractions and violations at Colgan, including inadequate operational manuals, deficiencies in its internal evaluation program and insufficient management personnel to oversee safety operations. Some of these safety concerns were also identified in Department of Defense audits of Colgan operations in 2005 and 2007.

Monteleon tells FRONTLINE that his efforts to bring enforcement action against Colgan, which was growing rapidly at the time, met resistance. Monteleon said that the company complained about his efforts to his office manager, who, according to Monteleon, rejected the enforcement recommendations, telling him that "[Colgan President] Mike Colgan is a friend of this office."

According to the FAA, the office manager says he does not recall making that statement, but if he did he did not mean to suggest that Colgan would receive preferential treatment.

Monteleon's whistleblower complaint included alleged violations at Colgan in 2005 and 2007-2008, when he was reassigned to the carrier as an aircrew program manager. A subsequent Department of Transportation inspector general's review substantiated two of his allegations and did not find enough evidence to substantiate eight others. The IG was primarily concerned with determining whether Monteleon was removed from his position overseeing Colgan Air as a result of his efforts to initiate enforcement actions against the carrier. The IG says it believes that Monteleon's removal was for other reasons.

A New Day?

The new FAA administrator, Randy Babbitt, has promised a "new day" at the agency. One change is the creation of an Office of Audit and Evaluation to address whistleblower complaints. "We're going to try and handle this a little bit different," Babbitt tells FRONTLINE. "A squeaky wheel is making some noise. We all know that. And they're squeaking for a reason, and we need to understand that reason."

And, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, there is still a lot of squeaking going on at the FAA. Last summer, the OSC said that it had referred 27 separate FAA whistleblower complaints to the Department of Transportation for further investigation. A source at the OSC, which handles all federal whistleblower complaints, told FRONTLINE that the volume of internal complaints at the FAA was "off the charts" and a clear indication of serious problems inside the agency.

Under Babbitt, the Customer Service Initiative has undergone a name change, although its acronym remains the same. It is now called the "Consistency and Standardization Initiative."

But it's still unclear whether more than the name has changed. According to a memo posted on the FAA's Web site, the newly named policy, "has given those affected by agency decisions a process they can use to ask for review at increasingly higher levels of the FAA with no fear of retribution."

Southwest inspector Bobby Boutris tells FRONTLINE that despite the public name change, the most recent FAA manual he received still directs him to treat the airlines as "customers" and make sure that he meets customer service expectations. Boutris believes the policy still requires clarification. "As an inspector," he says, "I'm still confused."

"Culture change is a hard, hard thing," says Congressional investigator Clay Foushee. "It takes cultures a long time to develop, and if they develop problems or dysfunctionality, it takes a long time to grow that dysfunctionality out of the system."

Contributing to this report was Russ Choma, who was a member of the production team for FRONTLINE'S Flying Cheap while working as a freelancer for the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.

posted february 9, 2010

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