Revelations that Southwest Airlines flew thousands of flights in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) directives brought to light a “relaxed culture” of oversight that investigators later termed “symptomatic of much deeper problems.” When the airline industry and the FAA agreed in the 1990s to work together on safety, their new joint programs depended on “the integrity of the people using them,” the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG) told Congress in April 2008. But separate probes by the OIG, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee found alarming evidence that the necessary integrity was often missing, and that relationships between airlines and FAA inspectors were often far too cozy. In the case of Southwest Airlines, investigators eventually concluded that 46 of its aircraft flew more than 60,000 flights in violation of FAA directives before officially notifying the agency — and then even flew another 1,451 miles after notification. When Southwest voluntarily notified the FAA that its fleet had fuselage problems on March 15, 2007, the responsible FAA supervisor failed to ground the aircraft for the next eight days. Two FAA whistleblowers told congressional investigators of a close relationship between the supervisor and Southwest’s compliance manager. One whistleblower, FAA inspector Douglas E. Peters, alleged that the supervisor allowed Southwest to continue flying for two weeks after the agency discovered a problem with rudders on Southwest planes. An oversight committee report further asserted that FAA took no follow-up action to ensure that Southwest aircraft had been brought into compliance with federal law until the agency learned of the congressional investigations nearly eight months later. Though the FAA safety chief said he did not know the gravity of the potentially systemic problems, Peters told Congress that at least some senior management knew about the Southwest situation for years. Staff from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee interviewed additional FAA inspectors who said they sometimes do not bring enforcement action for fear of retribution or because “management won’t do anything.” The FAA’s chief safety officer expressed “disappointment and regret over FAA’s failure.” In response to a request for comment, the FAA pointed to a September 2008 press release announcing safety commitment updates and audit results showing a 98 percent safety compliance rate at U.S. carriers. “This audit gives us confidence that, overall, the system is safe and in almost every instance the airlines are complying with our safety directives,” said Acting Administrator Robert A. Sturgell in the release. “But “even with this tremendous level of safety and compliance,” he added, “we have work to do.”
Neither the inspector general nor a blue ribbon panel appointed to study FAA’s approach to safety advocated scrapping the partnership program, but each made a series of recommendations. OIG suggestions included periodically rotating inspectors, more closely evaluating previous violations, and revising the revolving door policy for inspectors. The FAA is taking action on most recommendations, but is not establishing an independent body for investigations, according to the inspector general.
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