Tag Archive: FAA Malfeasance

FAA tries again to fix cover-up of air safety errors
By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN Associated Press Writer
Article Last Updated: 04/25/2008 11:32:44 AM MDT

WASHINGTON—The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday its
second effort in three years to stop its managers in Texas from
covering up air safety violations—after a new investigation found the
misconduct continued into last year.
In the latest blow to an agency already under fire for letting airlines
ignore its safety directives, the FAA announced that the top two
managers of an air traffic control facility in Dallas-Fort Worth had
been removed from their jobs.

In addition, the Transportation Department’s inspector general found
FAA managers in Dallas-Fort Worth routinely and intentionally
misclassified instances where airplanes were allowed to fly closer
together than they were supposed to, the FAA said. Instead of calling
them operational errors or deviations from safety rules by FAA
controllers, the managers labeled them pilot errors or nonevents.

“We’re not going to stand for this,” acting FAA administrator Bobby
Sturgell told a news conference.

Hank Krakowski, a former United Airlines pilot and safety executive who
became FAA’s chief operating officer last September, acknowledged that
FAA had promised to fix the problem in 2005 but “today it’s clear to us
those commitments were not taken seriously by people in my organization
who were responsible.” He announced a new attempt to remedy the

The FAA only learned of the continuing problem because a
whistle-blower—controller supervisor Anne Whiteman, who first reported
in 2004 that agency officials were concealing safety violations—had
come forward again last year to say the FAA managers were still
underreporting safety violations by FAA controllers or now misreporting
them as pilot errors.

The new inspector general report that substantiated Whiteman’s latest
allegations was ordered last year by the U.S. Office of Special
Counsel, an independent investigating agency responsible for protecting
whistle-blowers. A brief summary of the findings was issued by the FAA.
Special Counsel Scott Bloch did not plan to release the report until he
had time to evaluate it in detail with whistle-blowers but said it
“seems to validate what our brave whistle-blower Anne Whiteman brought

“I continue to be concerned about a national trend,” Bloch said in a
statement referring to the Dallas-Forth Worth cover-up and the recent
disclosure of lax FAA supervision of safety compliance by Southwest
Airlines and American Airlines. “These problems exist because of a
culture of complacency and cover-up in the FAA. This culture did not
develop on its own. I believe it happened with the complicity of higher
management and could not have been possible without the support of
leadership in Washington.”

Transportation’s inspector general found that between November 2005 and
July 2007, FAA managers at the Dallas-Fort Worth facility misclassified
62 air traffic events as pilot deviations or nonevents when in fact
there were 52 operational errors and 10 operational deviations by FAA
controllers, the FAA said.

Krakowski said the problem appeared to be confined to the Dallas-Fort
Worth TRACON, a facility that controls flight below 10,000 feet and
within 30 miles of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and several smaller
airports nearby. He said a nationwide sampling found only 3 percent
misclassifications elsewhere but 25 percent there.

The air traffic controllers’ union, deep into a two-year-old fight with
the FAA over manpower and safety, pounced on the agency’s announcement
to again criticize what it considers a shortage of workers. The
Dallas-Fort Worth facility has 57 fully certified controllers, down
from 99 in January 2006, said Darrell Meachum, vice president of the
National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s southwest region.

Meachum said 45 operational errors were reported in the first six
months of this fiscal year, up from 26 over the same period in 2007.

“The system is broken,” Meachum said. “These cover-ups by the FAA are
just par for the course.”

“This once great aviation safety agency has become ‘FEMA with Wings,'”
said Meacham, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency
which bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina.

The FAA says it has been able to replace controllers who resign or
retire with new hires who can work some but not all stations as they
complete on-the-job training that can take up to three years.
Controllers in training now comprise 25 percent of the national
controller workforce, up from 15 percent a few years ago. Controllers
union president Patrick Forrey said there are 22 trainees at the
Dallas-Fort Worth facility but nine of them are not yet certified to
handle any radar position.

To deal with the problem in Texas, Krakowski announced four nationwide
steps because “I’m not confident it can’t happen elsewhere.”

—The cause of safety violations will no longer be determined by
managers of air control facilities, but rather by a national quality
assurance team that will also audit facility reports. This team will
report to Krakowski’s top safety officer.

—Krakowski’s newly hired to safety officer, Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert
O. Tarter, will do a complete safety review of all procedures in FAA’s
Air Traffic Organization.

—By the end of this year, FAA will install in Dallas-Fort Worth
software that electronically detects any loss of the required distance
between airplanes and will install it nationwide by the end of 2009.

—A recently signed agreement with the controllers union, similar to one
already in place for pilots, will allow air traffic controllers to
report safety problems without fear of penalties.


Associated Press Writer Paul Weber in Dallas contributed to this

Airline Safety Alarms Unheeded
Southwest Lapse Tied to Pattern Of FAA Leniency

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008; A01

Federal aviation safety inspectors told members of Congress yesterday that they repeatedly ran into roadblocks when trying to report oversight lapses that allowed Southwest Airlines last year to operate passenger flights with planes in need of key safety checks.

Those problems demonstrate weakness in the Federal Aviation Administration‘s efforts to ensure safety at all airlines, the inspector general for the Transportation Department told lawmakers. Since it was disclosed last month that Southwest kept flying dozens of planes in need of inspections for fuselage cracks, four carriers have grounded more than 500 planes and canceled hundreds of flights to conduct inspections or make required repairs.

The FAA’s reliance on airlines to voluntarily disclose safety issues “promotes a pattern of excessive leniency at the expense of effective oversight and appropriate enforcement,” Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel told the House Transportation Committee yesterday.

Several FAA inspectors described their struggles in trying to get their superiors and other inspectors to take tougher stances with Southwest. Instead of taking prompt regulatory action, their bosses tried to find ways to help Southwest avoid sanctions, they testified.

When they attempted to report those issues to officials higher up the FAA chain of command, they were harassed, threatened and even punished, they said.

They also said the FAA had gone from aggressively regulating airlines to treating them like customers or clients. Lawmakers and outside safety experts have expressed similar worries about regulators’ coziness with the carriers.

One inspector, Douglas E. Peters, said his experience proved that there “was evidence that FAA management personnel with the responsibility and the authority to take appropriate action proved themselves unworthy of being custodians of the public trust.”

Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the committee, said issues raised by the inspectors represented the “most egregious lapse of safety I have seen in the last 23 years.”

“The FAA would have us believe that what took place was an isolated incident,” Oberstar said. “But . . . this was a systematic breakdown of the safety oversight role of the FAA.”

FAA officials have said the problems with Southwest appeared to be unique, and a recent audit revealed that airlines were complying with 99 percent of safety directions. Four unidentified carriers are under investigation for not complying with directives, the FAA has said.

The groundings and inspection errors are coming to light during the safest period in the history of U.S. commercial aviation. There has been only one major fatal commercial jet crash in the United States since late 2001. Even the sharpest critics of the FAA’s oversight, including Oberstar, have said that air travelers should not be afraid to get on passenger planes.

The FAA’s top safety officer, Nicholas A. Sabatini, apologized to lawmakers yesterday for his agency’s mishandling of the Southwest inspection debacle. He promised that investigators were trying to get to the bottom of what occurred. “I consider what happened to be egregious,” Sabatini said, adding that the whistle-blowing inspectors were heroes.

Scovel, the inspector general, told lawmakers that the FAA relied too heavily on airlines to report problems under a program that encourages voluntary disclosure of safety dangers. In exchange for reporting such issues and quickly fixing them, airlines often avoid punishment. Scovel said that the Southwest lapses were “symptomatic of much deeper problems with FAA oversight.”

Last month — a year after the original problems at Southwest — the FAA fined the carrier $10.2 million for the missed safety checks and for continuing to fly the planes even after the airline learned that it had missed the inspections.

Southwest Chairman Herbert D. Kelleher and chief executive Gary C. Kelly both testified that safety was never compromised by the missed inspections. They noted that the missed inspections dealt only with a tiny section of the planes’ skin, where cracking would likely not have led to a catastrophic accident.

Still, Kelleher and Kelly said the planes should have been taken out of service when the airline learned that they had missed the inspections. Kelly called the incident a “black eye” on the airline’s safety record.

The inspectors who testified yesterday said Southwest’s compliance lapses stemmed from the lax attitude of their supervisor in their Dallas office, Douglas Gawadzinski. He seemed to be too close to the management of Southwest and believed in treating the airline as a customer or client, not a business to be regulated, they said.

Gawadzinski, who continues to work for the FAA in another job, could not be reached for comment. FAA officials would not discuss possible punishment, but Scovel said the agency had considered reducing his compensation by two pay grades.

Charalambe Boutris, an inspector credited with helping expose the troubles in the Dallas office, said the problems appeared in 2003 when he noticed that Southwest’s documentation of fleet-wide engine maintenance was “inconsistent.”

He said he tried to get Gawadzinski to issue a letter of investigation to Southwest, a step considered a stiff regulatory action, but Gawadzinski refused. Still, the inspector said he was able to get Southwest to fix the way it tracks engine maintenance records.

In March 2007, Southwest discovered that dozens of its Boeing 737s had gone months without required inspections for cracks in their skins. Southwest was then improperly given permission by Gawadzinski to keep those planes in service.

Undiscovered cracks on planes “could have resulted in a sudden fracture . . . which would have had a catastrophic impact during flight,” said Boutris, who learned the planes were still flying only when he came upon one being repaired at a Chicago airport.