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FAA's 'culture of coziness' targeted in airline safety hearing

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The Federal Aviation Agency came under heavy fire today as the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee accused the agency of "the most serious lapse in safety . . . in the past 23 years" and threatened to break up what he called "a culture of coziness" between senior agency officials and the airlines they are tasked with regulating.

"The committee's investigation uncovered a pattern of regulatory abuse and widespread regulatory lapses that allowed 117 aircraft to be operated in commercial service despite being out of compliance with airworthiness directors," Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) said. "FAA needs to clean house, from the top down."

Oberstar questioned everything about the agency, starting with the mission statement on its website -- "being responsive to our customers and accountable to the public" -- and suggested the agency had a dangerously misguided concern for the airlines, not the public. Oberstar said he will propose legislation closing the revolving door between the airlines and the federal regulators, requiring a two-year "cooling off" period for FAA inspectors before they can work for the airlines.

The hearings were sparked by two whistle-blowers. One, an airplane inspector, Charalambe "Bobby" Boutris, contacted the congressional committee after his efforts to ground Southwest Airlines for cracks in the fuselage were foiled by supervisors he said were friendly with the airline. He testified today that Southwest continued for over a year to fly aircraft overdue for inspection, putting the public at risk.

The missed inspections by Southwest involved fuselage cracks that Boutris said "could have resulted in a sudden fracture and failure of the skin panels of the fuselage, and consequently cause a rapid decompression which would have had a catastrophic impact during flight."

The FAA fined Southwest $10.2 million, the largest fine in agency history, after news of the lapsed inspections came to light.

While his supervisor "suppressed" his findings, Boutris said, others at the agency also dampened interest in inspection, looking the other way.

"I am here to report that more than one FAA inspector, along with FAA management, have been looking the other way for years," he told the committee. "No supervisor can do what my supervisor was doing without the support from fellow inspectors, the support of the division management team, who were fully aware of what was going on, and I believe with the support from some people in Washington."

A second inspector, Douglas E. Peters, who worked on the American Airlines account, became emotional as he recounted a threat from a supervisor who came to his office, picked up a framed picture of Peters' family, and warned him to back off.

" 'You have a good job here and your wife has a good job over at the Dallas [FAA flight standards office]. I'd hate to see you jeopardize your and her careers trying to take down a couple of losers,' " Peters said he was told by Bobby Hedlund, the acting manager of FAA's Southwest Certificate Management Office.

Boutris said the agency views the airlines as the customers, telling employees that if the airline industry prospers, there will be more jobs for them at the agency. And, he said, the airlines take advantage of that culture.

The airlines "constantly remind us they are the customer," said the inspector. "The best way to put it is like you are going down the highway committing traffic violations and jeopardizing the safety of others, and when the police officer stops you and informs you that you are breaking the law by endangering people's lives, you tell him that he can not document the violation because you are his customer."

The whistle-blowers testified that Boutris' supervisor, Douglas Gawadzinski, who had responsibility for Southwest, was friendly with Southwest's manager of regulatory compliance, Paul Comeau.

"I believe that Southwest knowingly hired Mr. Comeau for his FAA connections with inspectors in our office, and to their advantage placed him in the position that directly interfaces with our office on a daily basis," Boutris told the committee.

Several airlines have responded to the incident by grounding fleets for inspection. But Gawadzinski was transferred to another position within the FAA, where, Oberstar said, he is earning $100,000 a year.

"The FAA would have us believe this was an isolated incident and that the damage is contained, that it was attributable to a rogue individual," Oberstar said. Instead, he said, the congressional investigation shows "a systematic breakdown" in the FAA's culture, resulting in "misfeasance, malfeasance, bordering on corruption."

If the committee's investigation had been "a grand jury proceeding," he said, "I think it would result in an indictment."

johanna.neuman@latimes.com

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