Protecting passengers has taken a back seat to protecting airlines at the Federal Aviation Administration, according to former airline inspectors, lawmakers and industry experts who gathered Thursday on Capitol Hill.
The FAA faced fire from a congressional panel as whistleblowers said the FAA's close relationship with the airlines it regulates has compromised inspection and safety practices.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., said the FAA's recent record on airline inspections contains "the most egregious lapses of safety I've seen in 23 years."
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"The FAA would have us believe that what took place was an isolated incident and has been contained," Oberstar said. "In fact, the testimony we have heard substantiates that clearly this is not an isolated aberration attributable to a rogue individual, but rather a systematic breakdown of the safety oversight role of the FAA."
The FAA has been heavily scrutinized since it was revealed that Southwest Airlines flew planes without the required safety checks, even though an FAA inspector knew about the lapses.
"I take responsibility for what happened in my organization and I will take what I learned and correct that," said Nicholas Sabatini, FAA's associate administrator for aviaton safety.
On Thursday, Bobby Boutris, one of the whistleblowers in the Southwest incident, told lawmakers that he thinks the airline intentionally hired a former FAA employee because the hire had a close relationship with the FAA supervisor assigned to monitor the carrier. Oberstar said that supervisor, who did not appear at today's hearing, is still an FAA employee making over $100,000 a year, though he has been reassigned from Southwest to American Airlines.
"I'm here to report that more than one inspector, along with FAA management, have been looking the other way for years," Boutris said.
FAA Says Airline Audit Shows Safety Comes First
But the FAA insisted this week that it is putting safety first - and released data Wednesday to prove it.
Results of a sweeping FAA audit launched after the Southwest incident found that 99 percent of airlines were in compliance with required maintenance procedures.
The findings came after the FAA conducted nearly 2,400 audits at 117 air carriers.
"The bottom line, despite what a small few may imply, is that our system works," said acting FAA administrator Robert Sturgell.
Yesterday, United Airlines became the latest of several carriers to ground airplanes so it could finish maintenance tests it failed to conduct. United's announcement came after American and Delta airlines canceled hundreds of flights to re-inspect wiring.
The FAA also said this week it will address broader ethical concerns raised by inspectors. It plans to develop an additional reporting system by the end of the month to give employees another way to raise safety concerns. By June 30, the FAA said it will also begin a project to further address inspector post-employment restrictions. Currently, FAA prohibits new inspectors who are hired from an airline from overseeing that airline for a period of two years.
Still, the Department of Transportation's inspector general told lawmakers that the incident at Southwest shows the FAA's procedures are more reactive than proactive.
Inspector general Calvin Scovel said that when Southwest announced its missed inspections on aging planes, it was also revealed FAA investigators had 21 key related inspections that were overdue for at least five years. Scovel said that as of last month, the FAA had still not completed at least 5 of those required inspections.
As a result of its audit, the FAA is investigating whether four airlines violated aviation safety rules. Three of the airlines allegedly flew planes without meeting all the required safety rules and regulations, while for one the alleged problem was a matter of paperwork.
The Forecast for Airline Safety
Looking ahead, the panel heard several suggestions about how to ensure future airline safety.
The inspector general recommended that an independent organization investigate safety issues identified by FAA employees. He also suggested the FAA rotate its inspectors so they don't get cozy with any particular airline.
He also encouraged the FAA to require a "cooling-off" period when an FAA inspector is hired at an air carrier he or she previously inspected.
Ensuring there are enough resources for hands-on inspections rather than simply reviews of paperwork is also a priority, Oberstar said. The chairman suggested Congress call for an increase in funding for the FAA's inspector workforce.
"There will never be enough to go out and inspect every airplane that ever moves in the system, and so they really got to get to know and understand the systems and develop reporting mechanisms," said William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. "That can look a little cozy but it is also essential."
ABC News' Dana Wachter contributed to this report.