There were systemic breakdowns in the FAA’s airline safety inspection program, key whistleblowers testified before Congress on April 3. One unaccountable inspector, enabled by a culture of relaxed standards, allowed Southwest Airlines (SWA) to violate FAA rules and airworthiness directives. FAA line staff, top agency officials, and SWA executives testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a hearing to examine whether “partnership programs” between airlines and the FAA have compromised safety. (For background on this issue, click here and here.)
Until the 1990s, the FAA had a rather adversarial relationship with the airlines they regulated. FAA executives say that the relationship hindered safety, as airlines would hide problems rather than report safety problems. In order to improve their ability to solve safety issues, the FAA launched initiatives aimed at developing a fruitful relationship with the airlines: the Customer Service Initiative (CSI), which treated airlines like clients rather than opponents, and the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program (VDRP), under which airlines that disclosed safety concerns before the FAA uncovered them would not be penalized. The hearing was occasioned by the conviction of many committee members that these programs have tilted the FAA too far from its regulatory role. “The only customer,” said chairman Jim Oberstar in his opening remarks, “is the air-traveling public.”
The first panel of witnesses was composed of a number of current and former FAA inspection staff with roles in the SWA inspection debacle. Here’s what they said: Bobby Boutris was an inspector in the Dallas-based SWA Certificate Management Office (CMO). (Remember all these acronyms — my goodness but this was an acronym-crazy hearing.) Over several years in charge of overseeing safe maintenance practices at SWA, he noticed many problems in the way the airline was keeping its maintenance records. The airline would revise “task cards” — which document compliance with airworthiness directives (ADs) — without FAA approval, and it did not keep track of AD compliance records. Boutris worked under Douglas Gawadzinski, the CMO’s principal maintenance inspector (PMI), who by all accounts presented today is the main villain of this story. As Boutris noted noncompliance by SWA, going back to 2003, he would ask Gawadzinski to send enforceable “letters of investigation” instead of the less stringent “letters of concern” that Gawadzinski would insist he send. Boutris regularly appealed to his office manager, Mike Mills, who tried to help but was caught up in his own bureaucratic skirmishes. Boutris was eventually assigned to lead the team assessing Southwest’s airframes. He said that two SWA staff members requested that Gawadzinski remove him from this project: “it was obvious that SWA wanted to cherry pick the inspector.”
In his testimony, Mills said that Gawadzinski caused trouble in the SWA CMO. That particular CMO (and it wasn’t alone) enjoyed an unusually chummy relationship with the carrier it was responsible for overseeing. “The oversight mission of the office toward Southwest Airlines was considerably degraded by virtue of the informality that had developed in the office’s business transactions with the carrier and the coziness between some of the inspectors and their counterparts at Southwest Airlines.” In fact, Southwest had hired inspector Paul Comeau directly from the FAA’s SWA CMO to work in its regulatory compliance. Boutris attributes Gawadzinski’s laxness with SWA to his “cozy” relationship with Comeau.
According to Mills, Gawadzinski contributed to the CMO’s lax atmosphere. He constantly name-dropped “Nick” (Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA’s top safety officer) and “Jim” (James Ballough, director of flight standards at the FAA), leading many in the CMO to believe that Gawadzinski had influence with the top brass. “He believed his ‘insider’ status entitled him to promote certain accommodations for the carrier in helping Southwest ‘work through’ issues of regulatory noncompliance in its maintenance and engineering department,” Mills said. “He believed this approach was innovative and in keeping with a refined line of thinking at headquarters regarding the FAA’s role in overseeing major air carriers.” (Think back to the CSI and VDRP above.)
Mills would receive reports of Gawadzinski’s lackadaisical approach to investigating SWA from some of his inspectors, and he would try to pass them to higher officials. Mills said that support from the FAA’s Southwest Region (not airline) flight standards manager, Thomas Stuckey, was not there. He harshly criticized Stuckey’s management style. Instead of taking Mills’s warnings about Gawadzinski seriously, Mills said, Stuckey and other managers considered the dispute one of personality and sent them down the mediation route. Meanwhile, Gawadzinski continued his lax approach to safety regulation, regularly citing “Nick and Jim” as his inspirations for the deviations from procedures.
Boutris testified that just as he was ramping up for airframe inspections in March 2007, SWA self-reported on March 15 through VDRP that it had missed inspections on up to 100 aircraft in the previous several months. Processing the VDRP filing was Gawadzinski, who, Boutris said, permitted SWA to keep flying the aircraft in question, even though FAA guidelines call for such aircraft to be grounded: “had Mr. Gawadzinski followed the mandated FAA Guidance he should have notified SWA that the affected aircraft could not be used in air transportation past the date that this non-compliance was discovered and initially reported to him on March 15, 2007.” But Gawadzinski did not make this demand. He apparently informed SWA, either explicitly or implicitly, that they could continue to operate the aircraft in question. “Mr. Gawadzinski did not have the authority to allow these aircraft to operate with a known unsafe condition past the date at which time the AD noncompliance was discovered and reported to him,” Boutris said. Boutris also documented several other instances in which Gawadzinski looked the other way and kept SWA’s VDRP filings to himself.
In April 2007, after the known violation of the AD, inspector Douglas Peters was called in as part of an audit team to look at the SWA situation. Two FAA managers wrote a memo on April 18 saying that yes, SWA had “operated 47 aircraft in an unairworthy condition and that the PMI [i.e., Gawadzinski] had condoned such operation.” In May 2007, both Gawadzinski and Mills were removed from their responsibilities and transfered. Mills insists that he did nothing wrong and said that his reputation was dramatically injured by this action. Peters was on the verge of filing a report on the unethical actions of Gawadzinski and others in the SWA CMO when he was visited by Mills’s acting replacement, Bobby Hedlund, on June 11, 2007. Fighting back tears as he testified, Peters said that Hedlund held a photo of Peters’s son and said “This is what’s important, family and flying.” Hedlund continued: “You have a good job here, and your wife as a good job over at the Dallas FSDO. I’d hate to see you jeopardize your and her careers trying to take down a couple of losers.”
Despite the barely-veiled threat, Peters filed his report and later that summer contacted the U.S. government’s whistleblower protector, the Office of Special Counsel, and the House Transportation Committee. Boutris did the same in September 2007, after he had been placed on leave in March due to an anonymous complaint from SWA to Gawadzinski — a complaint that Mills called “highly implausible” and “suspicious.” FAA management refused to take action against documented noncompliance by a PMI, but it had no trouble in suspending a low-level inspector who had spoken out against the PMI. Mills was not so lucky.
In March 2008, shortly before the House Transportation Committee was to launch its investigation, the FAA announced a huge fine against Southwest. Testimony by Mills’s assistant manager, Robert Andre Naccache, indicates that the agency decided to impose the fine late in 2007, months after the original OK from Gawadzinski to the airline. Southwest was clearly blindsided by the fine. The enforcement action came only when it was clear that the whistleblowers were talking to Special Counsel and the House committee, and the agency decided to get in front of the action and try to stem their losses. (The Wall Street Journal had an excellent report on this today, and it appears that acting FAA chief Robert Sturgell upped the fine dramatically at the last minute to make it look like the agency was on top of safety enforcement.)
So, how involved were FAA senior managers in this affair? Regional managers like Stuckey knew about it and “without question” were trying to keep it under wraps, said Mills. When Mills sent documentation of Gawalzinski’s missteps to the FAA’s Southwest Regional Office, a staffer told him that he had been instructed by a supervisor to handle Mills’s evidence “very quietly” and “low key.” Boutris went to whistleblower protection in September because he had realized by August that “the Division Management Team’s interest was damage control and covering up the serious safety concerns I had brought to their attention.” The lack of corrective action, up to Ballough and Sabatini (who said that his office knew about the safety lapse by summer of 2007), was evidence to Peters that “no action was being considered by FAA senior management personnel, leaving a strong underlying tone that the happenings at the SWA CMO were not only condoned, but possibly sanctioned.” Then again, perhaps FAA management did intervene. Terry Lambert, another flight standards manager in the Southwest Regional Office, testified to gasps by the audience and committee members that he was ordered by Steve Douglas, an assistant division manager in the same office, to “shred” his notes about the SWA CMO goings-on — an order that senior FAA managers denied knowledge of.
And what of Southwest Airlines’s role in all this? Their maintenance staff knew that the planes should be grounded. Sabatini tried to cast the blame onto SWA, but he can’t get around that a PMI permitted the continued operation of those planes and was later protected by several layers of FAA management. SWA’s witnesses were legendary founder Herb Kelleher and CEO Gary Kelly. After singing his airline’s safety-record praises (and he’s right, Southwest is one of the world’s safest airlines), Kelleher asked: “How did we get to the point where we screwed up by not putting our planes on the ground after an AD?” The AD was directed to particular panels on the plane, which he said SWA had replaced — all except for about a 36 square inch panel. Thinking the AD had been superseded led to the safety lapse, which he said SWA self-reported as soon as it noticed it in March 2007. Why did they keep flying the noncompliant planes? Because PMI Gawadzinski OK’ed it. “We did it, and we should not have, and we learned out lesson.” There’s no excuse, Kelleher said. But Kelly insisted that the planes were not unsafe: “Our aircraft are inspected far more often than is necessary.” He also promised that senior management will be in the loop on these issues in the future — they weren’t in this case.
And as for Gawadzinski? Committee members made much of the fact that he was not fired immediately. He has been transfered to the American Airlines CMO, where he has no responsibility for safety issues, said Sabatini. Oberstar said that he does have some safety responsibilities, including the writing of a manual, and Sabatini seemed blindsided. Many committee members expressed their disbelief that Gawadzinski remained on staff making six figures. Sabatini insisted that an investigation is pending. (Oddly enough, it was Democrats, who think of public-sector employees as darlings deserving of much protection, who wanted Gawadzinski’s head. Former businesswoman and Congresswoman Laura Richardson said that she would have fired him.)
So, where do we go from here? It’s late and this is a long post, so I’ll write about the policy lessons and the likely legislative results of this hearing tomorrow.