VERY FRIENDLY SKIES

Southwest's Cozy Ties Triggered FAA Tumult  (WSJ)

The Federal Aviation Administration's mission is to watch closely for maintenance lapses and other safety problems at U.S. airlines. But last summer, two FAA inspectors allege, Southwest Airlines was trying to pick and choose which inspectors would do the watching.

[fleet]Annoyed by one FAA inspector it considered adversarial, Southwest complained in June to local FAA managers, sharing the airline's detailed records about the activities of that inspector. That incident and others like it, described by the two inspectors, have now kicked up a storm of controversy about the close relationship between the FAA and the carriers it regulates, rattling the industry and sparking broad debate about the adequacy of airline regulation.

The two inspectors, who were assigned to monitor Southwest, have given government investigators a detailed chronicle of what they say was a struggle to correct maintenance problems at the airline. In two lengthy statements, which were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, they accuse the FAA of having too cozy a relationship with the low-fare carrier, which they say thwarted efforts to correct problems and compromised passenger safety.

The resulting tumult has buffeted other carriers, worrying passengers and focusing public attention on how the FAA does its job. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plans to hold a hearing Thursday to investigate the issues raised by the two inspectors. Both men will tell their stories publicly for the first time. In addition, there will be testimony from government investigators, FAA managers and Southwest officials, including Herb Kelleher, the airline's co-founder and executive chairman.

[Herbert Kelleher]

Rep. James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who is chairman of the panel, complained on Tuesday about "complacency, cozy relationships with the airlines and inappropriate reliance on voluntary disclosure" by airlines of safety problems. "We need a change of attitude at the highest levels of the FAA," said Rep. Oberstar.

FAA officials have said repeatedly that the Southwest problems were an anomaly, but the agency nevertheless is moving to try to prevent such problems from occurring again. On Wednesday, it unveiled steps to make it easier for inspectors to get their concerns heard within the agency.

The maintenance lapses identified by the two FAA inspectors -- Douglas Peters and Charalambe "Bobby" Boutris -- have resulted in a proposed $10.2 million civil penalty against Southwest for failing to complete mandatory structural inspections of 46 aircraft. On Tuesday, Rep. Oberstar indicated that further investigation is under way into the decision by Southwest officials and their local FAA counterparts to continue carrying tens of thousands of passengers on the 46 jets without completing inspections. "It's a law-enforcement investigation," he said, explaining why the panel opted not to subpoena one of the principal FAA decision makers.

In an interview Wednesday night, Mr. Peters said the Southwest episode shows "how much in bed the FAA really is with the carriers."

Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford declined on Wednesday to respond to written questions about the allegations made by the two inspectors, including their descriptions of actions taken by several Southwest employees. The company, she said, had not yet seen the documents containing the allegations.

"Out of respect for the congressional hearing process, we will present testimony there, both oral and in writing, that addresses many of the questions being asked," she said. "It would be premature of Southwest Airlines to discuss its testimony prior to the hearing." In addition, she said, "some of the information you request involves personnel information that we cannot share."

The maintenance slip-ups at Southwest didn't result in any accidents or emergency incidents, but six of the planes required repairs. Dozens of others were long overdue for checks of backup rudder-control mechanisms.

The FAA subsequently ordered spot checks of maintenance records at all U.S. carriers. In recent weeks, airlines have canceled flights and pulled planes out of service to make sure safety checks had been performed properly. The FAA indicated on Wednesday that the initial reviews had revealed few signs of poor compliance by the airlines.

Driven by budget and policy considerations, the FAA wants to move further in the direction of allowing airlines to self-regulate their activities, with the FAA analyzing safety and maintenance data to spot trends. If the Southwest controversy casts lasting doubt on information coming from industry, this enforcement strategy could be threatened.

The agency said that two FAA managers involved with Southwest have been punished, and that no similar problems of biased or lackadaisical enforcement cropped up in the reviews completed recently of maintenance at other carriers.

Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell told reporters Wednesday that the missteps involving Southwest resulted from "a two-way breakdown" in safety-monitoring by the airline and the agency. The fix, he said, will require "an increase in the accountability of all parties, the FAA included." One possible step, he said, would be tightening ethics rules involving FAA inspectors who later take airline jobs.

Mr. Peters, the FAA inspector, gave a detailed account of his experience with Southwest to a special agent for the FAA. Mr. Boutris, his fellow inspector, provided his own account in a letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistle-blower complaints from government employees. Both men painted an unflattering picture of the FAA office in Irving, Texas, which is near Southwest's headquarters in Dallas. The office, they claim, sometimes overlooked problems or went easy on Southwest.

Mr. Boutris informed investigators that over three years, he provided 38 examples of problems to his regional bosses, but didn't receive a single response. "They apply Band-Aids instead of fixing the root of the problem," he wrote.

Mr. Peters joined the FAA in 2001. He was a data-evaluation program manager at the FAA office responsible for Southwest, and now works in another FAA office supervising American 757 jets.

Mr. Peters indicated in his statement that he first clashed with his FAA supervisor, principal maintenance inspector Douglas Gawadzinski, back in 2003. The issue, he said, was how much to penalize Southwest for a violation Mr. Peters wrote up stemming from a lightning strike on one aircraft. A senior Southwest official had agreed the company would pay the full $886,000 civil penalty demanded by FAA lawyers, as long as the agency wouldn't issue the normally required press release, according to Mr. Peters. The company was told that wasn't acceptable.

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According to Mr. Peters, immediately after that meeting, Mr. Gawadzinski pulled Southwest's maintenance chief aside and told him that the airline would pay only $132,000. Weeks later, Mr. Gawadzinski suggested to Mr. Peters, with a wink, that he had used a ruse to have a press release on the reduced penalty put out briefly, but then had rescinded it due to a "typographical error," according to Mr. Peters's statement. Mr. Peters said Mr. Gawadzinski told him the agency had met its legal requirement, and another release "wasn't going to be put out."

An FAA spokeswoman said Tuesday she couldn't find any record of a press release about the matter. Efforts to reach Mr. Gawadzinski through the FAA were unsuccessful. The agency spokeswoman said he has been reassigned because of the problems at Southwest and "is not involved in any safety inspection activities." He isn't slated to testify at Thursday's hearing.

Mr. Boutris, the other inspector, had previously worked as a maintenance inspector for several major U.S. and foreign carriers. He was hired by the FAA in 1998. His current job is to monitor maintenance on a portion of Southwest's jets.

In early 2004, Mr. Boutris also found himself at odds with Mr. Gawadzinski. In his statement to investigators, Mr. Boutris said he discovered maintenance-paperwork discrepancies between different engine models and wanted to start an investigation. Mr. Gawadzinski persuaded him to send Southwest a so-called "letter of concern," which was a less serious step, he said. The matter ultimately was resolved between the FAA and the carrier. Mr. Boutris said he recalled Southwest's Bill Krivanek, head of the airline's compliance team, saying he hoped the inspector's authority wouldn't expand beyond engine issues. Mr. Krivanek didn't return a call seeking comment.

In their statements, both FAA inspectors said that over the next few years, Southwest tried to pick inspectors to work with whom it considered friendly, and to intimidate or push aside those whom it saw as more aggressive enforcers. At times, FAA managers ordered that specific inspectors be kept away from meetings to avoid upsetting their Southwest counterparts, the two inspectors said. In a few cases, they said, Mr. Gawadzinski dealt directly with the airline, effectively cutting out his employees from the information flow. "There is nothing for you to look into," Mr. Peters said he heard the supervisor say. "Southwest Airlines already called me and I took care of it."

By early 2006, Mr. Boutris was monitoring airframe and systems maintenance on a portion of Southwest's Boeing 737 fleet. In his account to investigators, which he provided last fall, he said he began to notice discrepancies in records about structural repairs. Mr. Gawadzinski, he said, wouldn't allow him to send a formal letter to Southwest's management laying out his concerns.

The issue that eventually spurred Messrs. Boutris and Peters to go outside of their home office with their concerns involved the mandatory inspections of the skins of Southwest's roughly 200 oldest jetliners. The FAA imposed the inspection requirement in the late 1980s, after it became clear that tiny surface cracks on jets could grow significantly over time, endangering passengers.

In early 2007, Mr. Boutris said, he and Southwest's Mr. Krivanek sparred over how to make sure that the structural inspections and necessary repairs were done. At one point, Mr. Boutris said, Mr. Krivanek requested but failed to get him assigned to something else.

Mr. Boutris argued with Southwest over the extent of the information he needed. A compromise was reached, and at 9 a.m. on March 15, Mr. Boutris arrived at Southwest's facility to start poring over maintenance records.

By this point, Paul Comeau, who had been an FAA inspector in the local office, was working for Southwest as its manager of regulatory compliance. Messrs. Peters and Boutris both contend, in their statements to investigators, that Mr. Comeau's hiring resulted in more-conciliatory FAA oversight. According to Mr. Boutris, Mr. Comeau had had "a very close" working relationship with Mr. Gawadzinski when both were at the FAA. In his new role, Mr. Comeau "directly interfaces with our office on a daily basis," Mr. Boutris said. (Mr. Comeau is one of three officials Southwest has placed on leave pending an internal review.) Mr. Comeau didn't return calls seeking comment.

Voluntary Disclosure

The events leading to the current controversy began the same day Mr. Boutris started looking through Southwest's files. Within hours, Southwest alerted the FAA's Mr. Gawadzinski by phone that required structural inspections may have been missed on as many as 100 Boeing 737s. According to one federal investigative report, the airline told the FAA manager it had uncovered the problem, on its own, the day before.

Four days later, Southwest submitted a "voluntary disclosure" that said -- falsely, it would later turn out -- that all the inspections had been completed, both the FAA and the airline now say. The document was prepared by Messrs. Comeau and Gawadzinski, according to Mr. Boutris.

The inspector said he began to realize that something was amiss one week later when he conducted a late-night inspection at Chicago's Midway airport and noticed mechanics repairing a fuselage crack on a Boeing 737. Mr. Boutris said that when he analyzed additional Southwest maintenance records, he discovered that uninspected planes had remained in service.

Mr. Gawadzinski "did not even know how long these aircraft had been flying out of compliance...and neither did" the airline, Mr. Boutris later asserted to investigators. Southwest initially gave contradictory numbers about the extent of the problem.

Under Investigation

Mr. Boutris said he was placed under investigation by FAA superiors, who had received an anonymous complaint challenging his performance and behavior. He was taken off inspection duties, he said, and told to turn over his Southwest work to Mr. Gawadzinski. Mr. Boutris said Wednesday that the investigation is over and no action was taken against him.

By around this time, the problems at the FAA's Irving office had attracted the attention of more senior FAA officials, who sent in investigators. Later, Mr. Gawadzinski and one other manager there were reassigned to different jobs.

Last fall, Mr. Boutris sent his detailed statement to the Office of Special Counsel. "I have been subjected to reprisal by management and harassment by co-workers," he wrote. For three years, "the message I have been getting is not to 'rock the boat.' "

In a later report to Congress and the Department of Transportation's Inspector General, the Office of Special Counsel concluded that the allegations of Messrs. Boutris and Peters were credible. Their disclosures indicate that the FAA "does not appear to have held management and safety inspectors appropriately accountable for their actions and inaction," the report said.

Late last year, the FAA launched an official enforcement case against Southwest. Inside the agency, lawyers first considered assessing a penalty of about $300,000, then raised the proposed amount to about $3 million, according to people familiar with the details. Mr. Sturgell, the FAA administrator, made a last-minute decision to raise it above $10 million, these people said, partly because investigations by the House panel and by the Department of Transportation's inspector general were likely to spark a furor.