The House Transportation Committee is holding a hearing today on what Rep. Jim Oberstar, the committee’s chairman, thinks is an overly cozy relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration and the nation’s airlines.
The hearing is being Webcast live, and I’ll be noting some of the revelations here.
Initial testimony is coming from a whistleblower at Southwest Airlines, Bobby Boutris, who contends that several of that airline’s planes had cracks in the fuselage, but were allowed to fly anyway. He contends that an ex-FAA inspector was hired by Southwest to take advantages of his connections with the agency in an effort to get it to “look the other way” where safety matters are concerned. Boutris told much of his story to National Public Radio, which broadcast details this morning.
The Dallas Morning News has an interview with investigator Clay Foushee, who is responsible for getting “whistleblower” protections for several inspectors:
“Those are the guys and girls who are qualified to see what is out there in the system,” Mr. Foushee said. “And if they bring something back and it gets minimized or suppressed, and they try to take it to the higher-ups and they suffer professionally, that is an appalling situation.”
FAA whistleblower Douglas Peters choked up this morning, when he recounted how an FAA official appeared to threaten his career. He said the official said, “You have a good job here, and your wife has a good job over at the FSDO (an FAA office). It would be a shame to lose that because you’re trying to take down a couple of losers.”
Another FAA official says he was transferred when he called attention to the safety problems at Southwest.
While it’s a situation getting attention now, it’s not a new pattern of behavior by the FAA. A similar situation was reported in the wake of the mechanics strike at Northwest Airlines. BusinessWeek magazine reported earlier this year that an FAA inspector, Mike Lund, was so concerned about the mechanics who replaced striking workers at Northwest, that he sent a memo recommending that NWA’s flight schedule be curtailed. Instead, the magazine reported, “Lund’s supervisors confiscated the badge that gave him access to Northwest’s facilities and gave him a desk job.”
Asked today by Oberstar, however, whether there’s any indication the problems at the FAA sector assigned to Southwest apply to other regions, none of the whistleblowers cited any example. I’ve sent an e-mail to Oberstar’s office asking why Lund’s case isn’t part of the probe. Update: “Committee staff did not choose to call Mr. Lund because the IG’s office had already looked into this matter and then submitted its 9/7/07 (report) for the hearing record,” says John Schadl, Rep. Oberstar’s spokesman. Here’s a copy (pdf) of the inspector general’s report on unsafe maintenance practices at Northwest.
[Update January 2013: the link for the pdf 9/7/07 report no longer works. The address was ‘http://www.oig.dot.gov/StreamFile?file=/data/pdfdocs/NWA.pdf’ A review of documents posted online at DoT-IG does not include this particular record.]
Later today, however, Tom Brantley, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the FAA inspectors’ union, reportedly will detail maintenance and safety issues at United, Continental, Northwest, and Hawaiian Airlines.
Coincidentally — or not — the FAA yesterday issued a news release announcing steps it is taking to make it easier for inspectors to raise their concerns.
Update 12:44 p.m. – Committee documents have just been posted. A pdf version is available here.
“The FAA would have us believe that what took place was an isolated incident and has been contained,” Oberstar said after hearing from the whistleblowers today. “The evidence suggests that this was not an isolated incident, but rather a systemic breakdown of the oversight role of the FAA. It is misfeasance, malfeasance, bordering on corruption.”
Nick Sabatini, the FAA’s associate administrator for safety told Oberstar he finds the situation “egregious.”
One observation: For a topic this important, and a scandal that has brewed for so long, it’s surprising how few members of the committee bothered to attend today’s hearing.
They missed their big chance; the story led all three network TV newscasts.