WASHINGTON — FAA officials overseeing Southwest Airlines ignored safety violations, leaked sensitive data to the carrier and tried to intimidate two inspectors to head off investigations, according to previously undisclosed allegations by the inspectors.
The Federal Aviation Administration inspectors are scheduled to testify April 3 before the House Transportation Committee. They say others in the agency allowed Southwest to skip critical safety inspections for years. The charges are in government documents provided to USA TODAY.
The federal Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates complaints from whistle-blowers, such as the two inspectors, found a "substantial likelihood" that the allegations are true, according to the documents.
The FAA on Thursday fined Southwest $10.2 million for intentionally flying 46 jets without performing inspections for cracks in the fuselage. The agency also reassigned two FAA managers in the office that oversees Southwest, but has neither identified them nor said when the action occurred.
The whistle-blowers complained repeatedly in memos written in 2007 that their concerns about Southwest were not being taken seriously. The underlying safety concern — that the airline was unable to keep up with mandatory inspections — had been raised as early as 2003, one charged.
FAA inspector C. Bobby Boutris wrote in a memo to Congress last fall that only after congressional investigators began inquiring about the matter did the agency tighten oversight at Southwest.
"After eight months, they (Southwest) are finally doing what they were required to do back in March, and this is not by choice," Boutris wrote. "It is very sad that somebody from outside had to force them to do the right thing."
Memos from Boutris and another FAA whistle-blower, Douglas Peters, said that others in the office objected to their attempts to enforce basic safety standards at Southwest. Boutris and Peters say FAA officials overseeing enforcement were too close to Southwest managers. A top Southwest maintenance official had recently left the FAA and was friendly with several of the agency's top inspectors, they said.
Boutris said he had been raising concerns since 2003 about the airline's monitoring of aircraft parts identified as problem-prone in previous accidents. The review he finally launched in 2007 is what resulted in the fine against Southwest.
Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., said last week that the investigation had revealed the worst safety lapse he had seen in 23 years.
FAA officials acknowledged that some of their own managers did not properly handle the situation at Southwest. The agency conducted an independent investigation last year and began taking action against Southwest after it was completed, said Jim Ballough, the FAA's director of Flight Standards Service.
Southwest said it did not compromise safety and all actions were taken with FAA permission. CEO Gary Kelly said he was not familiar with the whistle-blower allegations, but that the airline would have addressed any safety concerns brought to its attention.
Whistleblowers say officials looked the other way.
The FAA said it will seek the fine from Southwest for flying 46 jets during nine months in 2006 and 2007 without performing required inspections for cracks in the fuselage.
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.