June 24, 2008

Whistle-Blower Sues FAA Over ’90s Alaska Air Inspections

By Mike Carter, Seattle Times

Jun. 24--A former top safety inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration in Seattle who complained bitterly about being thwarted by her own bosses while trying to enforce air-safety standards at Alaska Airlines has filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal court.

Mary Rose Diefenderfer alleges that sex discrimination and retaliation for whistle-blower activities forced her to leave the agency in 1999. Her various claims through agency merit boards, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and federal appeals courts took 11 years to resolve before she could file the federal civil lawsuit against the FAA in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Diefenderfer is a former airline pilot and pilot instructor who began working for the FAA in 1988. In 1993, she was appointed assistant principal operations inspector, overseeing Alaska Airlines from the FAA's Seattle district office.

Later that year, she was promoted to the principal inspector's job, which had been vacated by an inspector who warned her of a cozy relationship between Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and the FAA, according to the lawsuit.

Over the next several years, Diefenderfer and Alaska Airlines officials clashed over her efforts to enforce safety regulations. In one of the more controversial -- and colorful -- confrontations, Diefenderfer took action against the airline after learning that an executive used highly flammable vodka to de-ice the wings of an MD-80 jetliner grounded because of a cold snap in Siberia. She learned about the incident from an article in the company's newsletter.

She also reported incidents involving falsification of records and pilot training.

The lawsuit alleges that the company took increasingly aggressive efforts to stifle Diefenderfer and undermine her team of inspectors and that her bosses were complicit, eventually removing her as the principal inspector in 1997 and reprimanding her for talking to the media in 1999. She resigned from the FAA in 1999.

"Not only was she not supported in her efforts, but several of her superiors sided with [Alaska Airlines] in an effort to prevent her from safeguarding public safety through observance of regulations and laws," the lawsuit alleges.

The FAA declined to comment.

The following year, the warnings of Diefenderfer and other FAA inspectors who had complained about Alaska's safety-inspection program were brought into sharp relief when Flight 261 crashed into the Pacific off Point Mugu, Calif., killing all 88 on board. An investigation showed faulty maintenance of a critical stabilizer assembly was responsible for the crash.

Diefenderfer alleges that she applied for at least 10 other positions within the FAA but wasn't hired for any of them. She alleges most were filled with men who were not as qualified for the jobs.

She also alleges discrimination because of her activities as a whistle-blower, and she says she was denied access to databases and even the office where she worked. She is asking for reinstatement to her job, back pay, compensatory damages and attorney fees.

After Diefenderfer left the FAA, she became a vice president for safety at Pro Air, a discount airline based in Detroit. In 2000, as the FAA was ordering Pro Air to ground its fleet for safety violations, she wrote an angry letter to the agency accusing it of singling out Pro Air for unfair inspections.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or [email protected]


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