Capitol Hill’s leading aviation expert went on the attack against the FAA after the agency proposed its largest-ever safety fine- $10.2 million - against Southwest Airlines. Jim Oberstar, the House Transportation Committee’s chairman, told reporters, “Complacency has likely set in at the highest levels of FAA.” He said at a news conference that “we’ve seen the pendulum swing away from vigorous enforcement of compliance toward a carrier-favorable, cozy relationship with the airlines.” A veteran of more than three decades on transportation issues in the House and the author of laws about FAA inspections, Oberstar has long been allied with airline and aerospace labour. And he has been a frequent critic of the FAA. Oberstar says that his committee was conducting an investigation of the Southwest issue - specifically, charges that the Dallas-based carrier misled the FAA about inspections for fuselage cracks - after FAA whistleblowers came forward. The FAA then scooped him by announcing the proposed fine and leaking the news of the penalty to the media before the committee could hold a scheduled hearing. “It’s not a coincidence” that the FAA acted when it did, and it’s "outrageous" that the agency did not respond to the whistleblowers, he said. Oberstar also said he'd have to postpone the hearing anyway, because he was about to be hospitalised for hip-replacement surgery.
But the senior Republican on this committee charged the Democratic side with “political games.” Rep. John Mica, the Florida representative (right) who would chair the committee if the Democrats were to lose control of the House, said, “here we have Members of Congress complaining about the FAA’s performance while at the same time playing politics by blocking a vote to put a well-qualified person in charge.” Mica said that acting FAA administrator Bobby Sturgell should be confirmed, but that “one of the Democratic leaders in the House mentioned that confirming the president’s nominee would take place over his dead body. Politics is crippling this rudderless agency.”
Southwest isn’t the only airline that has a relationship that is too “cozy” with the FAA, said Oberstar. He has “concerns about similar situations at other carriers, although we don't have evidence as serious as in this situation” at Southwest. Oberstar invited other whistleblowers to step forward. Oberstar said agency whistleblowers had told committee investigators that they had complained for almost three years that Southwest’s system for obeying FAA-ordered inspections and fixes was “inconsistent and unreliable.” He said that the whistleblowers were ignored when they tried to alert senior FAA managers. Oberstar put the number of planes in the fuselage-cracks case at 47, one more than the FAA cited, without explaining the discrepancy. He also said that Southwest may have flown 70 planes for at least a year without rudder-control inspections. “FAA needs to clean house from top to bottom,” Oberstar said. Others jumped on the FAA as well, with the union that represents FAA safety inspectors charging that “the relationship between the FAA and the industry has developed into troubling partnerships rather than the FAA maintaining a strong oversight role.” Tom Brantley, president of the union, Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), said it was “appalling that the FAA chose to impose this penalty only after several months of investigation by Congress and the threat of a pending hearing.”
Southwest went on the defensive, releasing a memo from Boeing that said the airline’s safety procedures with these 737s were appropriate. And a highly respected former NTSB safety expert, Gregory A. Feith, released a statement defending Southwest.