Standing Alone

Whistleblower” is a term whose original roots go back to the 19th and 20th century when police walking their beat on both sides of the Atlantic blew their whistles to summon help when they saw a crime being committed. But in the last 20 years the real meaning of the term “whistleblower” has been savaged by bad press and degraded to self-serving by individuals who blew the whistle for their own gain.

Today, I want to talk to you about two modern day whistleblowers: C. “Bobby” Boutris, an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI) with Southwest Airlines Certificating Office, and Douglas Peters, an FAA ASI with American Airlines Certificating Office. They testified this April 3rd in front of Representative Oberstar’s House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that the FAA gave Southwest Airlines a pass when it comes to complying with Airworthiness Directives and special inspections.

Before I continue, I need to give you some background information on what protection a federal employee has from retaliation from his or her employer when they blow the whistle. I took the following paragraph from Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia:

Whistleblower Protection Act
“Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 is a U.S. federal law that protects federal whistleblowers or persons who work for the government who report agency misconduct. A federal agency violates the Whistleblower Protection Act if it takes or fails to take (or threatens to take or fail to take) a personnel action with respect to any employee or applicant because of any disclosure of information by the employee or applicant that he or she reasonably believes evidences a violation of a law, rule, or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.

“The law created the Office of Special Counsel (OSC, www.osc.gov), charged with investigating complaints from bureaucrats that they were punished after reporting to Congress about waste, fraud, or abuse in their agencies. The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a major blow to government whistleblowers when, in the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, 04-473, it ruled that government employees do not have protection from retaliation by their employers under the First Amendment of the Constitution when they speak pursuant to their official job duties. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which has monopoly jurisdiction over these cases, has interpreted existing law in such a way that whistleblowers have lost 178 of the last 180 court cases relating to protection.”

With this latest Supreme Court ruling, any federal government employees who want to stand up and do the right thing are really putting their careers, their retirement, their reputations, and their family’s future on the chopping block. They stand alone, with no real protection under the law. Whistleblowers are either complete fools or the most courageous people you will ever meet this side of being in an actual combat situation.

Southwest and the FAA
As I write this article not a day has gone by since Congressman Oberstar’s April 2 and 3 hearings on the FAA’s treating Southwest as a customer instead of a regulated airline that this has failed to make the news. According to Congressman Oberstar’s press release of April 3, the FAA allowed Southwest to continue to operate 117 aircraft in noncompliance with an Airworthiness Directive and other mandatory inspections.

This was done so Southwest could conveniently schedule aircraft for inspection without disrupting its commercial schedule. Forty-seven B-737 aircraft continued in service without a fuselage crack inspection required every 4,500 hours. This inspection was the result of the Aloha accident in which 18 feet of the top fuselage blew off the aircraft in flight causing one fatality. The other 70 B-737 aircraft did not receive rudder inspection and were out of compliance for a year.

The rudder inspection requirement was a result of the Colorado Springs accident of a United 737 in which 25 people died and the Aliquippa, PA, US Air crash in which 132 died. After the congressional hearings American Airlines grounded 300 MD-80 jets to re-inspect and repair wire bundles in the wheel wells. Records show that American made repairs to at least 140 planes and conducted a complete rework of the wire bundles in 20 jets. In five days more than 3,000 flights were canceled, and 300,000 passengers were stranded across the country while mechanics inspected the aircraft.

Putting it all on the line
All this AD and inspection noncompliance came to light due to the courage of two FAA maintenance inspectors. Inspectors Boutris and Peters are A&P mechanics who know what the term “airworthy” really means! These men put everything on the line: family, job, retirement, and friends to ensure the safety of the flying public. How many of us in industry or government would do the same thing?

No one outside of the federal government can have a true understanding at what sacrifices it took to shine the spotlight of truth on these problems. No one can possibly comprehend the three years of living hell they experienced and the toll it took on each inspector and their families. Their impact on aviation safety by standing their ground and daring to be men of integrity and courage was huge and it will change forever the way airlines and the FAA will operate.

Other U.S. airlines across the board realized the free pass by the FAA was over and grounded their fleets to perform the required inspections.

Our FAA inspectors did not set out to be heroes. They followed the FAA chain of command and published procedures. When they first found the problems both ASI notified their supervisors, and when that did not produce the expected levels of concerns, they notified their supervisor’s superiors with the same results. Finally, frustrated, they went to the top. They sent emails, letters, had meetings pleading to get top management to listen to the problems they had found, and nothing happened. In between these efforts they were vilified, watched, threatened, investigated, and condemned by management and their peers because they were not “team players.” In the end, they had no choice but to call in the Inspector’s General (IG) Office which triggered the congressional investigation and then as they say the fertilizer hit the ventilating fan. In this case, despite the odds, the good guys won — at least for now.

The FAA won’t forget
Now that the media blitz is over and the dust is beginning to settle I am worried about our two heroes, these men of courage and integrity. For you see, I know how the game is played. I remember what happen after the Value Jet accident. In time the memory of our two inspectors’ bold acts of courage to ensure the safety of the flying public will fade and be forgotten by many in the media, congress, and Joe Citizen. But no one in the FAA will forget that it was Boutris and Peters who were the ones that blew the whistle.

Government whistleblowers always stand alone, before, during, and after they blow the whistle. Our heroes will go back to their jobs as inspectors, but they will have no real future in the FAA. Their careers will stagnate because no senior FAA manager would want to promote a proven “whistleblower” into his organization. Why? Because these men were passionate about safety and they believed in doing the right thing and being passionate about anything is not what the bureaucracy is noted for. So for a long time to come and maybe for the rest of their careers each of our inspectors will continue to pay the price for putting public safety before their careers. Such is the heavy price one pays to be a hero.

Reward not punish
We have to change this negative perception of whistleblowers. Our government and our industry should publicly reward and recognize these men and women of character and courage. We should end the current practice of passively punishing whistleblowers. We need to recognize those of us who uphold the finest virtues and attributes of our maintenance profession, whether they work for our maintenance industry or the federal government.

Therefore, on April 26, 2008 I nominated these two gentlemen for the Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award.

The FSF Heroism Award was established by the Foundation in 1968 to recognize civil aircraft crewmembers or ground personnel whose heroic actions exceeded the requirements of their jobs and, as a result, saved lives or property. Selection of award recipients is determined by the degree of personal risk involved in the heroic act; the nature of the courage, perseverance, and other personal characteristics that were displayed; and the degree to which the heroism was outside normal levels of duty and ability.

I think they earned this award four times over. They are men of uncommon courage and commitment to safety. They raised the bar for FAA safety inspectors and for mechanics on what it takes to be a professional. We owe them our gratitude and our respect. God Bless both of them and their families.

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