WASHINGTON — More Federal Aviation Administration whistle-blowers are beginning to step forward with fresh allegations of a "culture of complacency" between the FAA and the airlines industry, the head of the government agency charged with investigating whistle-blower complaints said Friday.
The complaints under investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel may widen attacks on the besieged regulatory agency. But with the FAA under scrutiny by Congress and government investigators, while hundreds of thousands of passengers reel from massive flight cancellations, the big question remains: How could this have happened?
The FAA was created in 1958 as an independent watchdog over airline safety. But instead the 46,000-employee agency is falling down on the job through a cozy relationship with the industry that has led to a years-long pattern of benign enforcement, say a parade of critics.
Over the past week, much of the flying public found itself grounded as American Airlines and other carriers abruptly canceled nearly 3,000 flights to make inspections and repairs that the FAA mandated. The unprecedented cancellations generated assertions that the FAA was overcompensating for past enforcement lapses. FAA officials vigorously deny that perception.
"This is not something sudden that just came up," FAA spokeswoman Lynn Tierney said Friday in restating the agency's 50-year-old pledge to enforce safety in the skies. FAA officials says they're moving to correct internal problems and call this "the safest period in aviation history," with only two major U.S. air crashes over the past seven years.
Nevertheless, investigations by congressional oversight committees, the special counsel's office and the Department of Transportation's inspector general have produced a different picture, including disclosures that mid-level FAA officials in Texas allowed Southwest Airlines to continue flying potentially dangerous planes that should been inspected for cracks.
The allegations about Southwest surfaced after two FAA inspectors, seeking whistle-blower protections, took their story to U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch and later testified publicly before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Bloch, in a telephone interview Friday, said another FAA whistle-blower has approached his agency, and a second is also considering working with investigators. The complaints involve two and possibly three airlines, which Bloch declined to name. The agency, he said, has four or five active files "and are opening more now." The complaints, he said, "run the gamut" from maintenance issues to "airworthiness" and safety.
"We're going to see a great deal of emphasis on oversight of the FAA over the next couple of months," Bloch said. "I believe there are many whistle-blowers in the wings who would like to report problems because they feel a duty to do so, but are very afraid of what will happen to them. We will protect them if they do come to us."
Political fury at the agency, particularly among Democratic lawmakers, soared to white-hot intensity after the mass grounding of airline flights prompted a flood of calls to congressional offices and embarrassing television images of passengers stranded at airports.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said the cancellations were the most pervasive since the grounding of DC-10s in 1979 and have disrupted at least 300,000 travelers.
"That's just an unprecedented amount of people whose trips have been changed, altered or canceled," he said. "It's absolutely huge."
Amid the passenger angst, a fundamental debate over whether such draconian measures were necessary has yet to be settled.
American Airlines grounded the flights of its MD-80 fleet to inspect and repair wiring bundles in the wheel wells to comply with an FAA safety directive. American had complied with the directive when it was first issued in 2006, but the FAA, over the past two weeks, determined that it wasn't done properly.
Over the past several weeks, Southwest, United, Delta, US Airways and Alaska Airlines also have canceled flights to take planes out of service to meet FAA requirements.
The FAA stepped up its surveillance as part of a two-phased audit that began after the agency levied a proposed $10.2 million fine against Southwest for continuing to fly planes that should have been grounded.
American officials said they thought were in compliance with the directive. But the FAA, after reviewing inspection records, determined that the carrier was in violation of the requirements. The FAA's Tierney said the carrier made the decision to ground the aircraft to comply with the regulation, but American officials said they had no choice.
Some FAA critics contend that the penalty against Southwest, as well as the rigid enforcement that led to the mass groundings, were public relations moves aimed at recasting the FAA's image. But Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee investigating the FAA, said the agency was "correcting course" and belatedly rising to its responsibility.
"They're not overreacting," Oberstar said. "They're reacting and doing what they should be doing." The mass groundings, he said, reflected the airlines' failure to comply with FAA maintenance requirements.
Bloch, who testified before Oberstar's committee, has become a leading critic of the FAA. The agency, he said, "is far and above the worst we've encountered in the federal government for its contempt for oversight, its willingness to retaliate against whistle-blowers ... and their willingness to cover up violations."
In his more than four years as special counsel, Bloch said his office has substantiated at least 10 whistle-blower complaints about the FAA.
Calvin Scovel, inspector general for the Department of Transportation, which includes the FAA, said "fundamental breakdowns" in the FAA's oversight of Southwest Airlines have raised "legitimate concerns about the FAA's overall approach to safety oversight."
One area of criticism has focused on the FAA's "self-disclosure" policy, in which airlines can escape possible fines if they report violations of airworthiness directives before they're spotted by FAA inspectors. But investigators and congressional critics say the policy has led to abuses in which airlines are sometimes tipped off about potential investigations by sympathetic inspectors in the FAA, thus enabling them to escape penalties.
Tom Brantley, the head of the union that includes FAA safety inspectors, said he has been told of "numerous instances" in which FAA safety inspectors were prevented from moving forward with enforcement actions after identifying a violation of FAA regulations.
"It's gotten worse," Brantley, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, told McClatchy. The inspectors, he said, approach him with their grievances but are often afraid to press the matter through official channels. "It's not a perpetual thing, but it is widespread."