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