FAA safety inspector Bobby Boutris was conducting night surveillance of maintenance at Midway Airport in Chicago in March 2007 when he observed a Southwest Airlines plane being repaired for a crack on the fuselage.
To his disbelief, Boutris discovered that the plane was overdue for inspections and still flying, despite the danger that a sudden failure of the jet's thin metal exterior could result in rapid decompression of the plane, jeopardizing all on board.
Even more incredible to Boutris, Southwest had already voluntarily notified his supervisor at the Federal Aviation Administration about the problem, he later learned.
Yet instead of immediately grounding the plane and launching an investigation, the supervisor, Douglas Gawadzinski, permitted Southwest to continue operating dozens of potentially unsafe aircraft on thousands of flights, Boutris testified before a congressional committee Thursday under a grant of whistle-blower protection.
During the hearing, whistleblowers, aviation safety specialists and government watchdogs blasted the FAA for looking the other way and allowing lapses in crucial aircraft inspections and maintenance that might have led to deadly crashes.
In fact, Gawadzinski rejected Boutris' recommendation to crack down and instead ordered that Southwest be sent a "letter of concern." Follow-up inspections showed that the original findings were not corrected, Boutris found.
In addition, routine surveillance inspections at other Southwest maintenance facilities revealed a systemic problem of non-compliance with FAA safety regulations, Boutris told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
For air travelers it means that not only has the glamor of flying faded, but the aviation safety net is tattered. Troubling signs have surfaced of a buddy system between the airline industry and the federal agency that is supposed to regulate it, the committee's investigation uncovered.
Top officials from the FAA and Southwest, including the airline's co-founder and executive chairman, Herb Kelleher, both apologized and insisted the problem was not as severe as it seemed.
"In addition to safety being a legal, moral and personal imperative, being unsafe would be the worst business strategy any airline could have," Kelleher said.
Nicholas Sabatini, the No. 1 safety official at the FAA, promised that reforms in the agency's oversight duties, recommended by the US Department of Transportation's inspector general, are coming, so the abuses that occurred earlier on Sabatini's watch will not recur.
Sabatini said he was "outraged and shocked" at the actions of Southwest and Gawadzinski to allow planes in the air that were not in compliance with safety regulations.
But "the safety record simply does not support allegations that the system and FAA are broken," Sabatini defiantly told the committee.
Lawmakers didn't buy the argument, however. Furthermore, they concluded that the lame safety oversight by the FAA in the Southwest case was not an isolated event.
"I fear that complacency may have set in at the highest levels of FAA management, reflecting a pendulum swing away from vigorous enforcement of compliance, toward a carrier-favorable, cozy relationship," said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), committee chairman.
Boutris had raised safety concerns since 2003 about Gawadzinski's alleged soft-pedaling of serious problems that were not being corrected, Boutris told the committee.
Gawadzinski, who did not testify, was the principal maintenance inspector in the FAA's southwest region of the country. He still works at the FAA in Texas, but he is under investigation, officials said.
"It is very sad that an FAA safety inspector has to become a whistle-blower in order to address safety issues," Boutris told the committee.
Another whistleblower, FAA inspector Douglas Peters, choked up with emotion Thursday when he described a conversation he had with an FAA manager last June about Peters' concerns over "unethical actions" by FAA personnel related to Southwest inspections.
The manager, Robert Hedlund, who also did not testify, agreed to look into issues that Peters raised in a memo. Walking over to a bookshelf in Peters' office where he keeps family photos, Hedlund picked up a picture of Peters' son standing near a plane and said, "This is what's important, family and flying."
But on his way out, Hedlund paused, turned to Peters and said: "You have a good job here, and your wife has a good job [with the FAA in Dallas]. I'd hate to see you jeopardize yours and her careers trying to take down a couple of losers."
The recent developments suggest a dangerous trend in the way the FAA permits the airlines to inspect their own fleets and voluntarily report problems, according to experts. Not enough FAA inspectors are showing up unannounced at airline maintenance hangars to kick tires, critics say. Instead, they are reading reports that the airlines supply about maintenance trends.
Central to the issue is how quickly repairs to aircraft are made once problems are identified and whether the work — much of it out-sourced to foreign companies — is being done properly.
The red flags are also popping up at airlines beyond Southwest.
American Airlines and Delta Air Lines last week temporarily grounded several hundred MD-80 planes due to concerns that FAA directives issued two years ago about wiring were not followed correctly.
Investigators aren't yet satisfied that they've dug down to the roots of the sudden rash of problems. There is no evidence, for instance, that maintenance is suffering due to the financial difficulties sweeping the airline industry at a time of near-record fuel costs.
But in the past month in particular, the airlines have reported seemingly every possible maintenance problem, out of fear that if they don't do so they will be accused of hiding something.
"The carriers are gun-shy," said Calvin Scovel, inspector general for the U.S. Transportation Department. "I think they see the FAA waking up."
Recommendations for oversight
The Transportation Department's inspector general offered several recommendations regarding the FAA's oversight duties, including:
* Establish an independent organization to conduct investigations of safety issues identified by FAA inspectors.
* Rotate supervisory inspectors periodically to ensure objectivity in airline oversight.
* Implement secondary reviews of safety information the airlines provide to the FAA so that the decision to accept or reject it does not rest with one inspector.
* Revise the FAA's revolving-door policy to require a cooling-off period when an agency inspector is hired to work at an airline that he or she previously inspected.