April 3, 2008

Exclusive: FAA Ignored Southwest Airlines Violations, Federal Watchdog Says

WASHINGTON -- Regulators overseeing Southwest Airlines repeatedly allowed the airline to escape punishment for safety violations because of a close relationship between the airline and federal officials, according to a federal watchdog investigation.

The inspector general's report found that Southwest violated more federally required safety regulations than previously known. It also discovered that FAA managers in North Texas didn't act on questions -- raised as early as September 2005 -- about whether decisions to let Southwest off the hook violated the FAA's own guidance about how its amnesty programs should be used.

"FAA's oversight in this case appears to allow, rather than mitigate, recurring safety violations," the inspector general found, according to testimony obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

The comments from the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general, Calvin Scovel III, are likely to figure prominently in today's congressional hearing about breakdowns in supervision of Southwest Airlines.

The information is likely to put the Federal Aviation Administration on the defensive, after the agency's leaders asserted Wednesday that its oversight model was strong and required only select reforms.

Since December 2006, Southwest has self-disclosed eight violations of four airworthiness directives -- including five violations after it revealed an error that eventually triggered a $10.2 million fine. The FAA issues airworthiness directives to correct pressing safety risks that may not be detected through regular maintenance; the agency can sanction carriers that violate them.

Beth Harbin, a Southwest spokeswoman, declined to comment about Mr. Scovel's testimony in advance of the hearing. She said the carrier "takes the issues raised against it very seriously."

"Southwest will apply its strong safety commitment in making whatever changes are necessary to carry its outstanding record into the future," Ms. Harbin said Wednesday.

Since the FAA announced the fine, the airline has placed three employees on leave and committed to audit its airworthiness-directive program and improve documentation of maintenance.

Other testimony scheduled for today's hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee appears to buttress the inspector general's description of an FAA office that lost its way.

'Time for change'

In 2005, shortly after becoming the Irving FAA station's top manager, Michael Mills said he wrote a memo called "a time for change" that described the mission ahead: correcting "the coziness between some of the inspectors and their counterparts at Southwest Airlines," according to testimony obtained by The News.

Mr. Mills largely blames one of his own subordinates for the office's failures. That inspector, Douglas Gawadzinski, was found to have allowed Southwest to fly jets last year that should have been immediately grounded to comply with airworthiness directives.

The inspector general highlighted a December 2005 FAA review, requested by Mr. Mills, that showed Mr. Gawadzinski didn't start enforcement investigations against Southwest that were needed. But the FAA didn't take action to address the findings, the inspector general found.

Congressional investigators have blamed Mr. Gawadzinski's friendship with a Southwest Airlines employee who used to work for Mr. Gawadzinski at the FAA. Neither man is scheduled to testify today. Mr. Gawadzinski hasn't returned phone calls seeking comment.

FAA officials in Washington have pointed the finger at individual inspectors, saying their lapses don't mean the whole system is flawed.

"There was a breakdown in the system," said FAA acting administrator Robert Sturgell. "There is no excuse."

On Wednesday, FAA officials said they would change the self-disclosure policy to require that reports be filed by senior airline officials and approved by ranking FAA officials, not just middle managers in regional offices.

Other changes announced Wednesday included:

-- Clarifying complex airworthiness directives to reduce confusion among airlines.

-- Adding a system for inspectors to report complaints about how managers deal with safety questions, to protect against concerns that managers may grow cozy with airline employees.

-- Instituting a new rule to prevent inspectors from immediately going to work for the airline they regulated.

But overall, agency officials described their oversight model as strong and insisted it deserves credit for an unprecedented period of air safety.

"Despite what a small few may imply, our system works," Mr. Sturgell said. "Our system is safer today than at any time in the past."

Weaknesses in model

The inspector general's report cites weaknesses in that model, known as the Air Transportation Oversight System. The system apparently missed that inspectors hadn't checked Southwest's program for complying with airworthiness directives since 1999, according to the ongoing review. That check was 90 months overdue, the review found.

By the time the airline told the FAA about the error for which it was penalized, in March 2007, "21 key inspections were overdue for at least five years," according to the inspector general's investigation.

The FAA still insists that problems were isolated. On Wednesday, FAA officials said that a check of 2,392 airworthiness directives among 117 airlines found a compliance rate of 99 percent.

"The carriers are doing their jobs," said Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for air safety.

Inspectors found 34 discrepancies, most of which stemmed from questions about documentation. In those cases, airlines were able to show that they had performed the required work, officials said.

The FAA identified seven cases that required further investigation and could result in penalties, Mr. Sabatini said.

Four of the seven involved two airlines that failed to completely inspect wire bundles for an auxiliary hydraulic pump, the FAA said. Wires that aren't properly secured could chafe or fail, causing a short that could affect power or trigger a fire, according to the airworthiness directive.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines canceled flights last week to redo or confirm their work for that airworthiness directive. Delta said Wednesday that it isn't under investigation by the FAA, which declined to identify the carriers that were out of compliance. An American spokesman declined to say whether the airline was under investigation.

Mr. Sturgell declined to address whether he would consider reducing Southwest's $10.2 million fine, the largest in agency history. Southwest has several more days to decide whether to pay the fine or appeal it.

But the administrator appeared to suggest that he isn't sympathetic to the carrier.

"For those who question our commitment to safety, I would suggest there is at least one airline today with 10.2 million reasons why those critics are simply wrong," Mr. Sturgell said.

Staff writer Suzanne Marta in Dallas contributed to this report.

The investigation

The background: The FAA fined Southwest Airlines $10.2 million for missing safety inspections, then ordered audits of all U.S. carriers' compliance with the rules that Southwest violated.

What's new: Southwest's failure to comply with those rules is more longstanding than previously known, according to a federal watchdog's review. So are questions about an FAA manager's repeated decisions to let Southwest off the hook for safety lapses.

What's coming: Lawmakers are likely to demand answers at today's hearing (9 a.m. CST) about why top FAA officials didn't deal with problems in the Irving office overseeing Southwest. The agency is rolling out reforms to address questions about its staff's ethics and accountability.