WASHINGTON Three veteran Federal Aviation Administration inspectors told lawmakers on Thursday that their agency supervisors looked the other way while Southwest Airlines neglected to inspect planes as required and continued to fly them even after discovering cracks in some of them.
The inspectors said that their FAA supervisors knew of the problems but had discouraged them from pursuing the safety problems or addressing problems within the agency, even threatening to relieve them of their duties.
One was removed from his job as an office manager and another was encouraged to apply for a transfer, they said. A third said he was temporarily removed from his role overseeing Southwest, as a result of complaints by the airline.
The FAA has since proposed a fine of $10.2 million against Southwest, because it flew tens of thousands of flights without performing inspections of the fuselage skin. The inspections were meant to prevent a repeat of a 1989 accident, when a huge chunk of skin peeled off an Aloha Airlines plane in flight.
Southwest later notified the agency that it had stopped flying the planes, while in fact it continued to fly them.
The FAA then announced an "audit" of compliance with its orders, leading Delta and American to ground scores of planes because of the possibility of missed inspections. United Airlines had to re-evaluate seven Boeing 747s, for a slightly different reason when an inspector found that their altimeters had been checked by a repair shop owned by Korean Air Lines using an instrument that had not been calibrated.
The testimony, some of which had been foreshadowed by news accounts, came amid intense scrutiny of airlines' inspection procedures and sharp criticism from Congress of the quality of FAA oversight. Southwest and other airlines have suspended hundreds of flights while undertaking inspections that critics say were long overdue.
The hearing was held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, whose chairman, James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, said, "The opening paragraph of the FAA act of 1958 directs the newly established agency to maintain safety at the highest possible level. Not the level the airlines want to spend money on, not the level the airlines think is OK, but the highest possible level." He said the agency had become too "cozy" with the airlines.
The agency has acknowledged some of the problems cited by the inspectors. Nicholas A. Sabatini, the associate administrator for safety, said before the hearing that "it was a failure on the part of individuals in my organization and midlevel managers at Southwest." But the system, he said, is still extremely safe.
Part of the problem, according to several safety experts, is that the FAA now relies heavily on the airlines to inspect themselves and report their problems. They say the agency's 2,800 inspectors spend more time reviewing airline records than checking airplanes.
The criticism has been unusually severe given that the airlines have had extremely good safety record in recent years, with no major crashes since 2001.
The agency has stressed that it is attempting to find safety problems before crashes rather than afterward.
In fact, the rate of fatal accidents per flight dropped by more than 60 percent in the 10 years ended on Sept. 30, 2007.
But the inspectors insisted that problems run deeper. "Despite the fact that our databases are full of positive findings, the current events are proving us wrong," said one inspector, Charalambe Boutris. The airlines failed to comply with "Airworthiness Directives," or ADs, orders that are issued after crashes or after one carrier discovers a problem do that fixes are instituted on all planes. Boutris pointed out that there were "hundreds of aircraft taken out of service with AD compliance issues."
"The majority of the ADs are the result of catastrophic accidents, and as the industry saying goes, ADs are written in blood," he said.
"No supervisor can do what my supervisor was doing without the support of fellow inspectors and the division management team," he said.
Another inspector, Douglas E. Peters, testified that even after the FAA manager had been removed, the replacement manager threatened him. The replacement pointed to a photo of Peters' family, pointed out that both Peters and Peters' wife had good jobs at the FAA, and said, "I'd hate to see you jeopardize yours and her careers" by pursuing ethics complaints against FAA managers
Southwest, which was also scheduled to testify, has acknowledged errors but maintains it did nothing unsafe. Herb D. Kelleher, executive chairman of the company, said before the hearing began, "Regulatory non-compliance and being unsafe are two different things."
In a generally improving safety picture, maintenance-related crashes are a fraction of the total. There have been three in recent history.
A ValuJet DC-9 crashed in May 1995, in the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 on board, because poorly supervised maintenance workers mishandled hazardous plane parts, causing a fire on board. In January 2000, an Alaska Airlines MD-80 crashed off the California coast because a tail assembly had been mislubricated, killing all 88 on board. And in January 2003, a commuter plane crashed on takeoff in Charlotte, N.C., killing all 21 on board, partly because of a maintenance error in connecting the moveable parts of the plane's tail to the control yoke in the cockpit.
The last crash of a big airliner in the United States was in November 2001, when an American Airlines flight leaving Kennedy International Airport for the Dominican Republic came down in Queens. It is the longest period without a major jet crash in airline history.