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.
FAA inspectors say others in the agency allowed Southwest to skip critical safety inspections for years.
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.
The arrangement violated rules of conduct, the Federal Aviation Administration said.