FAA lax with airlines, whistle-blowers say

Government officials have blocked enforcement of safety rules at major airlines for years because they have a cozy relationship with the companies, according to the testimony of U.S. inspectors who will appear before Congress Thursday.

The testimony alleges for the first time that inspectors have been pressured by Federal Aviation Administration officials to change findings or to soft-pedal enforcement actions for several of the nation's largest airlines, including Northwest, United and Continental. The controversy over the FAA's oversight has so far involved only Southwest Airlines.

The inspectors claim FAA officials were often more concerned with airline profit margins than safety and made them work under the specter of intimidation, according to the testimony, provided to USA TODAY.

Thursday's hearing before the House Transportation Committee was prompted by two whistle-blowers who charged that their bosses at the FAA had prevented them from enforcing serious safety matters at Southwest a year ago. The FAA issued a $10.2 million fine against Southwest last month for intentionally flying jets that had not received critical inspections and acknowledged that its inspectors had not acted properly.

"The role of inspector as safety enforcer is becoming increasingly overshadowed, and inspectors are being pressured by FAA management not to pursue enforcement actions," said Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union representing FAA inspectors, in testimony prepared for the hearing.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the Transportation Committee, outlined similar general allegations in a briefing Tuesday but declined to identify airline carriers. He said inspectors have been hindered by what he called the FAA's "culture of coziness."

According to testimony by Brantley and Richard Andrews, a recently retired inspector:

•Two FAA inspectors overseeing Northwest recently filed grievances alleging that they were told by managers to soften findings against the airline they had entered into the FAA's computer system. One inspector who objected to the order "was admonished." Andrea Newman, Northwest's vice president for government affairs, said the airline has never asked the FAA to alter inspection reports.

•An inspector for United discovered in March 2007 that the carrier had decided to keep batteries that power Boeing 777 emergency slides for years beyond their approved lifespan. After several meetings to address the "underlying safety risk," the FAA took no action. United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy said the carrier replaced the batteries by last November.

•In 2003, an inspector for Continental Airlines found that more than 4,000 aircraft life vests had been improperly overhauled. FAA management allowed the airline to continue operating with the vests. Continental spokesman David Messing declined comment.

•Andrews said he found problems at American Eagle, the regional carrier owned by American Airlines, with the airline's training and manuals. Enforcement letters he prepared were not immediately sent out. Eagle spokesman Tim Smith declined comment.

The FAA has conducted a wide-ranging internal review over the past month and will announce several changes in how it manages its enforcement teams, spokeswoman Lynn Tierney said.