WASHINGTON — The manager of the federal office that oversees Southwest Airlines accepted thousands of dollars in free pilot training from the carrier under an arrangement that violates rules of conduct, the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday.
The training program had been approved by regional officials and had been in place for years. The FAA has halted the program because it violates its rules, according to spokeswoman Diane Spitalieri. The FAA would not comment specifically on the supervisor's training because the matter is "under investigation," Spitalieri said.
FAA manager Bobby Hedlund, who was promoted last year to head the Southwest office, received months of training in 2005 that qualified him to fly the Boeing 737, according to recent testimony before Congress from three current and former FAA officials. Southwest received a proposed $10.2 million fine in March for safety violations.
FAA inspectors often receive training to stay abreast of changing technology and airline operations, but the training is mostly done at the FAA's expense. The free training highlights the continuing cozy relationship between Southwest and some of the government officials who oversee it, said Robert Naccache, who worked in the Southwest office until he retired last year.
"This is the most flagrant conflict of interest that I have ever witnessed in my 20-year career in the federal government," Naccache said during a hearing last month.
His testimony was buttressed by Michael Mills, the FAA's former Southwest manager, and Bobby Boutris, one of two federal whistle-blowers who first raised concerns about Southwest.
The training that Hedlund received would cost a private citizen $15,000 or more, according to the officials and flight schools. It also would enhance a resume, opening doors for employment at airlines or other private aviation companies. The FAA officials who testified at the hearing called the arrangement a conflict of interest.
The FAA and Southwest have been heavily criticized since a House transportation committee hearing April 3 revealed safety breakdowns and attempted retribution against inspectors who enforced the rules.
Hedlund did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Southwest confirmed that Hedlund had attended courses at the airline but characterized the training as part of his routine duties. "We certainly don't agree" that there are any ethical questions with the training, airline spokeswoman Beth Harbin said.
The FAA removed its top regulator for flight safety in Texas, a step that could signal a shake-up after a breakdown in its oversight of Southwest Airlines.
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