Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Southwest Airlines, FAA accused of falsifying safety reports


House panel releases report that states Southwest, agency falsified safety records
01:49 PM CDT on Tuesday, March 11, 2008
By DAVE MICHAELS / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – Officials for Southwest Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration "falsified the report" that said the airline had come into compliance with rules for crucial safety inspections for jets, according to records released by a U.S. House committee.

That allegation appears in more than 90 pages of documents that suggest a culture of cronyism compromised the FAA's oversight of Southwest Airlines in Dallas. Two whistle-blowers said FAA supervisors and colleagues undermined their efforts to get Southwest to comply with federal directives.

The FAA has fined Southwest $10.2 million for continuing to fly more than three dozen jets that were 30 months late for safety inspections and should have been grounded until the work was done. But the agency hasn't fired any employees over the incident, which has embarrassed the FAA and called into question its partnership approach to regulating airlines.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters suggested Monday that more disciplinary actions could be handed down.

"If any inspector failed in his or her responsibilities to the traveling public, they will be dealt with swiftly and severely," Ms. Peters told a conference in Washington. "There is simply no margin for error when it comes to the safety of our aviation system."

A Southwest spokeswoman said the carrier hasn't reviewed the specifics of the whistle-blower complaints and couldn't comment on the allegations.

Southwest first reported its failure to perform fuselage inspections on March 15, 2007. In a report approved by an FAA official in Irving, the airline said it had come into compliance – meaning it had stopped flying jets that required inspections.

In fact, the airline continued to fly most of the jets for another eight days.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistle-blower complaints, reported allegations in December that Southwest's regulatory official "falsely stated" and an FAA supervisor "falsely accepted" the airline's statement.

"For them to indicate in a report that the carrier had grounded their airplanes until they finished their inspections, only for someone else to find out that they continued to fly, is a very serious situation," said Linda Goodrich, regional vice president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union representing safety inspectors.

Failure to confirm

Peggy Gilligan, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for aviation safety, said the FAA supervisor failed to confirm that Southwest had grounded the jets, but the agency hasn't determined whether he knowingly misled anyone.

"All that is under review," Ms. Gilligan said.

The FAA supervisor who approved the form, Douglas T. Gawadzinski, later told FAA investigators that "there was never a concern with the airworthiness of the aircraft," according to an April 18 memo from FAA investigators.

Those investigators concluded that Mr. Gawadzinski's statement was absurd because six of the jets were found to have cracks – some as long as 3.5 inches. But they couldn't conclude that Mr. Gawadzinski allowed Southwest's jets to keep flying to "provide relief to schedule the inspections at the airline's convenience," according to the memo.

Mr. Gawadzinski, of North Richland Hills, declined to comment. The FAA has transferred him from the office overseeing Southwest Airlines.

According to one of the whistle-blowers, Mr. Gawadzinski stopped being strict with Southwest after a former FAA colleague, Paul Comeau, joined the airline. Previously, the whistle-blower said, the FAA had forced jets needing inspections to stop flying.

'Cozy relationship'

"His position directly interfaces with our office on a daily basis in regard to regulatory compliance issues," the whistle-blower, C. Bobby Boutris, wrote. "It is obvious that the cozy relationship between Gawadzinski and Comeau played a contributing factor ... and allowed 47 aircraft to fly paying passengers with a known unsafe condition."

Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has largely supported the inspectors' claims.

Mr. Oberstar, D-Minn., will chair a congressional hearing about the FAA's partnership approach to oversight in early April.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D- Dallas, said Monday that she's concerned the FAA "has been pretty derelict to not follow their guidelines." Southwest hasn't directly contacted her, although the airline has spoken with her staff, Ms. Johnson said.

"Anytime that the relationship [between carrier and regulator] is such that it could subject passengers to unsafe conditions, it's time for something to be done about it," said Ms. Johnson, who chairs one of the committee's sub-panels.

At a news conference Friday, Mr. Oberstar said he might propose a law prohibiting FAA inspectors from going to work for the airlines for a year or two. He also called for inspectors to be rotated between assignments "as a countermeasure against developing a cozy relationship" with airline employees.

Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly said last week that the self-reporting system is beneficial because it encourages carriers to disclose problems without fearing punishment.

"You need to have an environment where you can be honest and not have to fear retaliation or intimidation," Mr. Kelly said. "If errors are suppressed by fear, that is a far, far worse result in the safety environment."

The records unveiled Monday suggest that other inspectors' attempts to investigate Southwest were compromised.

An internal investigation into the way Mr. Gawadzinski handled Southwest's violations was leaked to the airline, according to a second inspector who spoke with congressional investigators.

Mr. Boutris was removed from his oversight position after an anonymous complaint was made to Southwest about him; Mr. Boutris told investigators that the inquiry lasted seven months and resulted in no discipline.

Ms. Goodrich said Mr. Oberstar's investigation, as well as an earlier investigation into similar problems at Northwest Airlines, have caused more inspectors to come forward with claims that supervisors have quashed or limited their investigations.

"We have had people literally come out of the woodwork saying I have a similar issue," said Ms. Goodrich. "I think we are going to be hearing other people coming forward."

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