Officials blast FAA relationship with airlines

IG recommends an independent body to investigate concerns and rotation of inspectors to prevent close relationships.

The Transportation Department's inspector general and FAA inspectors told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Thursday that cozy relationships with airlines have caused the agency to overlook lapses in safety inspections.

DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel said FAA's complicity in allowing Southwest Airlines to operate thousands of planes that had not undergone proper safety inspections "represent significant breakdowns in FAA oversight."

Scovel recommended that FAA create an independent body to investigate concerns from the agency's safety inspectors, rotate inspector supervisors to prevent tight relations with a particular carrier, revise guidance to ensure carriers try to fix safety problems voluntarily disclosed to FAA and take other action.

Scott Bloch of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said FAA has "a culture of convenience and of complacence" and "has a preference of reprisal" against agency whistle-blowers that goes beyond the problems over Southwest Airlines.

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee should establish an expert commission to examine investigate FAA's "complicity of the airline industry" and issue recommendations "for comprehensive reform of oversight and ai

rline safety for the next decade," Bloch said. He asked for the committee, the Transportation Department and FAA to allow for greater audits and no-notice inspections by a better financed and staffed DOT inspector general's office.

FAA's Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Nicholas Sabatini blamed Southwest Airlines and the agency's then-principal maintenance inspector overseeing the airline for allowing the operation of more than 59,000 flights between June 2006 and March 2007 on planes that did not undergo inspections for fuselage cracks.

The agency claims Southwest Airlines continued to operate planes on an additional 1,451 flights in March 2007 after the airline discovered that it had failed to do the fuselage inspections. He said the incident with Southwest Airlines was disturbing but was also "an isolated problem, not a systemic one."

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., disagreed. "It's clear that we have a structural problem at FAA," Oberstar said. "The chain of command above the inspector level was at fault. ... And correcting the problem at the top has to be the primary concern."

Oberstar said he will institute a periodic review about every six weeks with FAA and other senior committee members to review the agency's progress. He is going to draft a bill requiring a cooling-off period before an FAA employee can go to work for an air carrier.

On Wednesday, FAA announced a five-point plan that includes a regulation requiring that cooling off period, as well as a new reporting system by the end of the month that allows inspectors to report safety concerns; and amends the agency's voluntary disclosure program requiring that senior airline officials sign off on the disclosures before they are sent.

Terry Lambert, a manager in FAA's Southwest region, said agency inspectors must be better trained. "It's not just a matter of putting it in the computer but of how to do the inspections," he said.

Two FAA whistle-blowers who spearheaded the committee's investigation detailed a series of instances when they said supervisors suppressed their attempts to clamp down on safety violations by Southwest Airlines.

Charalambe (Bobby) Boutris, who is an FAA safety inspector for Southwest Airlines' certificate management office, testified that his former principal maintenance inspector, Douglas Gawadzinski, suppressed safety concerns Boutris conveyed as early as 2003.

He also said a former FAA safety inspector, Paul Comeau, was performing oversight inspections for regulatory compliance issues regarding Southwest Airlines after he accepted a job offer from the airline.

Douglas Peters, a former FAA safety inspector in the Southwest Airlines certificate management office, briefly choked up when recounting alleged intimidation by one of his supervisors when Peters was preparing to report "unethical actions" by inspectors in the agency's Southwest Airlines certificate management office.

Sabatini said Gawadzinski has been reassigned to a position that does not include any responsibility for safety decisions pending the completion of an agency investigation and is the only FAA employee who is being targeted for possible disciplinary action.