WASHINGTON — Midlevel Federal Aviation Administration officials allowed Southwest Airlines to continue flying potentially unsafe airplanes and suppressed efforts by subordinates to correct the problem, a congressional panel was told Thursday.
"If this were a grand jury proceeding, I think it would result in an indictment," Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said midway through testimony by nearly 20 witnesses.
Southwest Airline's executive chairman, Herb Kelleher, and chief executive officer Gary C. Kelly defended the safety record of the Dallas-based carrier, which faces a record $10.2 million penalty from the FAA for flying planes that should have been inspected for fuselage cracks.
Kelleher told the committee that the airline "screwed up" by continuing to fly planes that should have been grounded. But he said the FAA's regional office gave the go-ahead for the flights while Southwest sought to fix what he described as tiny cracks that airline officials had reported to the agency.
"We should not have (continued the flights), and we have learned our lesson," Kelleher said. "I apologize to this committee. I realize these planes should not have flown."
Kelleher also said he wanted to counter any impression that Southwest is "just rumbling around the skies" with cracks on un-inspected planes, saying the company's aircraft are "inspected over and over and over again."
But several FAA employees, including two inspectors testifying as government whistle-blowers, presented a picture of lax enforcement, sloppy documentation and collaboration between Southwest and the FAA Certificate Management Office. Located near Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, the office is responsible for overseeing the airline's compliance with FAA safety regulations.
"I am here today because I am concerned for the safety of the flying public," said FAA inspector Bobby Boutris, who, along with fellow whistle-blower Douglas Peters, exposed the allegations that led to Thursday's hearing. Boutris later told reporters that he's received a death threat through the mail. He declined to provide further details.
Other FAA employees supported their account that principal maintenance inspector Douglas Gawadzinski and other supervisory officials were friends with Southwest personnel and were unresponsive in looking into possible safety problems involving the airline.
Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, said the accounts detailed by the employees showed a pattern of "egregious" behavior, and he promised to pursue the allegations "with the full measure of the law."
He called Boutris "a hero."
Several lawmakers appeared astonished to learn that Gawadzinski remains with the FAA. He's been reassigned and has no authority over safety, Sabatini said.
"What do you have to do to get fired there?" asked Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas. Sabatini said Gawadzinski can't be dismissed until the FAA completes its internal investigation.
The FAA last month levied the penalty against Southwest for continuing to fly aircraft that should have been inspected for cracks that, if uncorrected, could cause the fuselage to rupture.
But Oberstar and other congressional critics said the problems were first detected more than a year ago and suggested that the FAA moved to penalize the airline only after the whistle-blowers stepped forward.
Calvin Scovel, the inspector general for the Department of Transportation, the FAA's parent department, said 46 aircraft flew in violation of the airline directive requiring fuselage inspections, carrying an estimated 6 million passengers on more than 60,000 flights.
Kelleher and Kelly, in their opening statement, said Southwest inspects "every inch of its aircraft" for cracks but inadvertently missed "a small area" because of a recordkeeping error.
"It is ... important to dispel the impression that we did not inspect our airplanes for skin cracks," said the two Southwest executives. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
They said they didn't learn details about the controversy until February and March, after the FAA levied its penalty against the airline and Oberstar held a news conference to outline the whistle-blower allegations.
"Two issues had to be addressed immediately," they said. "The first was that better judgment should have been exercised than to allow those aircraft to fly after the potential non-compliance was discovered. The second was that senior management should have been consulted on such a significant issue but was not."
Boutris and other FAA employees said Southwest also flew 70 airliners past the timetable for submitting them for inspection for a component of the rudder system.
The hearing raised questions about the FAA's voluntary disclosure policy, which allows airlines to escape penalties if they detect a problem first and report it to the FAA for correction. The FAA whistle-blowers, as well as the inspector general's review, said Southwest reported the cracks in the fuselage but was allowed to keep flying the planes in what Boutris called a "known unsafe condition" instead of having them grounded.
Scovel said his review showed that Gawadzinski "should have immediately grounded the aircraft and notified his management of the seriousness of the situation." The inspector general also criticized the FAA for what he called "an overly collaborative relationship" with Southwest.
Oberstar praised the FAA employees for their courage in stepping forward in the face of what they described as intimidation and, in some cases, retaliation by their superiors. Peters struggled to control his emotions as he told of a supervisor who picked up a picture of Peters' family and suggested that he could jeopardize his career at FAA by pursuing the issue.