WASHINGTON — In testimony today before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, several current and former FAA employees related their roles in the lapses in inspection of Southwest Airlines, how supervisors collaborated with the airline to minimize the punishments, and how a culture of lack of accountability was built up in the FAA’s southwest region.
More and more details continue to emerge about the Southwest inspections matter, which I’ve written about here and here. On March 6, the FAA announced a $10M fine against Southwest for operating forty-six of its 737-500 aircraft between March 15 and March 23, 2007. Under the FAA’s Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (in which airlines can self-report maintenance flaws without risking fines or public censure), the FAA reported the lapse in inspections on the forty-six aircraft for a specific defect: the possibility of cracks in the fuselage. (Six planes had cracking, as it turns out.) Southwest continued to operate these forty-six planes after March 15 — the offense for which they were fined — which Southwest claims was approved by the FAA. Today’s testimony makes clear that Southwest’s operation of these aircraft during that interval was approved.
One Douglas Gawadzinski, the principal maintenance inspector in the FAA’s Certification Management Office (CMO) for Southwest, was cast as the villain of the hearing. Bobby Boutris, one of the inspectors in the office, reported that Gawadzinski routinely made Boutris downgrade his notices to Southwest from enforceable “letters of investigation” to advisory “letters of concern.” Gawadzinski was apparently friendly with a former FAA inspector who had gone to work for Southwest, and he pressured the other inspectors to go easy on the airline, taking the FAA’s friendly regulator approach to the airlines much too far.
There’s a lot more to report, but the hearing will reconvene soon (with FAA officials and Southwest executives on tap to testify). I’ll write more when I get a chance. DEVELOPING…
UPDATE: The first part of my full report is here.