FAA Removes Senior Regulator in Texas after Airline Controversy

Apr. 8 — WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration 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.

Thomas E. Stuckey was reassigned Monday from his position as division manager for flight standards based in Fort Worth, FAA spokeswoman Lynn Tierney said. Mr. Stuckey's new position is administrative but doesn't involve flight safety, officials said.

Mr. Stuckey was one of three top regulators who testified before Congress last week about how the FAA's supervision of Southwest Airlines broke down over several years. The airline admitted that it flew more than three dozen jets that missed parts of key federally required inspections. It faces a $10.2 million fine for its lapse.

Until Monday, the FAA had assigned blame among its own staff to a single maintenance supervisor in North Texas. The FAA transferred the supervisor, Douglas T. Gawadzinski, from his station last year.

But at a congressional hearing last week, top FAA officials signaled that they blamed Mr. Stuckey as well.

"I believe there was a failure on the part of the leadership in the Southwest region," said Nicholas A. Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety.

In particular, Mr. Sabatini appeared to fault Mr. Stuckey for the delay in the FAA's investigation of Southwest Airlines, although Mr. Sabatini said he didn't think the slow pace was intentional. The inquiry was put on hold while investigators checked out allegations against Mr. Gawadzinski.

Southwest was fined on March 6, almost a year after it informed the FAA about the missed inspections.

"That should have been started immediately," Mr. Sabatini said of the investigation of the carrier.

A woman who answered the phone at Mr. Stuckey's residence Monday evening said he was flying and couldn't be reached for comment.

A spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wasn't immediately available to comment about Mr. Stuckey. The committee initially learned about the oversight failures through two whistle-blowers who also testified at the hearing.

One of them, Bobby Boutris, repeatedly challenged Mr. Gawadzinski's resistance to investigate Southwest's internal controls for complying with regulations. Mr. Boutris was later removed from his job and investigated for "baseless" allegations, according to investigators for the US Department of Transportation. He has since returned as a maintenance inspector overseeing Southwest Airlines.

On Thursday, Mr. Sabatini appeared to be caught off guard by lawmakers' questions about the importance of Mr. Gawadzinski's duties since his transfer.

"My expectation is that person be in the office, essentially counting paper clips," Mr. Sabatini said.

But in his testimony, Mr. Stuckey acknowledged that Mr. Gawadzinski had conducted three inspections of airline flight crews in the past year — twice while going to FAA job interviews.

Mr. Stuckey's reassignment is the first personnel action taken since Thursday's hearing but may not be the last. The agency is "looking strongly at the management decision-making in that office," Ms. Tierney said.

Mr. Stuckey's duties included overseeing the certification and activities of general aviation and air carriers in the Southwest region, which includes Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma. The offices that reported to him included the Irving office that oversees Southwest Airlines and the Fort Worth station that supervises American Airlines and American Eagle.

A successor hasn't been designated, Ms. Tierney said.

The FAA also is investigating allegations that an official in Mr. Stuckey's office ordered an FAA investigator to shred notes he took during an investigation of Mr. Gawadzinski, officials said. The investigator, Terry D. Lambert, told lawmakers on Thursday that one of Mr. Stuckey's deputies gave him the order.

Mr. Stuckey told lawmakers he didn't know anything about the order.

"There was other information that surfaced at the hearing that is being thoroughly investigated," Ms. Tierney said.