STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
The latest mass grounding of commercial airliners was guaranteed to get the media's attention. United Airlines parked dozens of Boeing 777 aircraft for inspection. The affected planes include one chartered to carry reporters on President Bush's trip to Europe.
INSKEEP: United's action comes after American and Delta cancelled hundreds of flights. Southwest Airlines was accused of faking inspections on its planes. And now the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating four major airlines.
MONTAGNE: It fell to acting administrator Robert Sturgell to offer the reassurance to flyers that has become a ritual at times like this.
Mr. ROBERT STURGELL (Acting FAA Administrator): The bottom line, despite what a small few may imply, is that our system works, and that flying is safer today than at any time in the past.
MONTAGNE: None of which will make the story you'll about to hear any less startling. We've heard about these problems because two FAA inspectors blew the whistle. Today they testify before Congress, and they've already told their story to NPR's Wade Goodwyn.
WADE GOODWYN: If you're cruising along at 37,000 feet in a 25-year-old 737, Bobby Boutris is the kind of FAA safety inspector you hope checked out your airplane. He's a stickler for details and relentless when he discovers a serious safety problem. Back in 2003, Boutris had been assigned responsibility for reviewing the engine maintenance for 737s in his region, and Boutris says when he looked at Southwest Airlines' paperwork, it was so inconsistent and incomplete, he couldn't tell what was going on with their engines.
Mr. BOBBY BOUTRIS (Former FAA Safety Inspector): In 2003 I had found a lot of inconsistencies with the records. They were different from aircraft to aircraft; it was very hard to determine compliance.
GOODWYN: Boutris complained to his supervisor, but he says he was largely ignored. But when Boutris was named program manager for the Boeing 737-700 series in 2006, the situation came to a head. Now he was responsible for the safety of the entire aircraft, and Boutris says Southwest's record-keeping had not improved.
Mr. BOUTRIS: I went back to my supervisor and I stated to him that I had the same problems I had back in 2003, three years earlier, on the engines, and I wanted to send a letter of investigation. He refused to.
GOODWYN: An FAA letter of investigation is a serious matter for an airline. And according to FAA rules, under these particular circumstances Boutris was required to investigate further. But he says he was again blocked by his supervisor, Douglas Gawadzinski. Boutris says he thinks he knows why - Gawadzinski had a friend at Southwest.
Mr. BOUTRIS: Mr. Paul Comeau, he was an FAA inspector in our office. While working for the FAA, he accepted the position with Southwest Airlines as the manager for regulatory compliance. So anything that had to do with aircraft maintenance, it was dealt between Mr. Gawadzinski and Mr. Comeau. They had a very close relationship.
GOODWYN: Douglas Gawadzinski and Paul Comeau did not respond to NPR requests for comment.
With a former FAA insider heading up their compliance team, Boutris says Southwest Airlines became complacent and arrogant. But Boutris wouldn't go away, so Southwest tried to get him removed. They told the FAA they wanted a different inspector.
Mr. BOUTRIS: It was obvious that Southwest Airlines, to me, what I believe, they were trying to cherry-pick the inspector for the inspection. And because of my knowledge for three years, they want me not to perform this inspection, they want somebody else.
GOODWYN: At first Boutris's supervisor refused to remove him. But it wasn't long before Gawadzinski told Boutris he was out and his career was in jeopardy because there had been undisclosed complaints from anonymous Southwest officials.
And this is where the second FAA whistleblower, Douglas Peters, comes into the story, because he was asked to review Boutris's Southwest investigation, and the more Peters investigated, the more he agreed with Boutris that the flying public was in danger.
Mr. DOUGLAS PETERS (Former FAA Supervisor): Absolutely. And so did the manager and so did the assistant manager and so did the supervisor for the geographic unit. It defies logic that something so critical would be not addressed. I can't explain it. It's a mystery.
GOODWYN: Peters says he soon discovered that Southwest began to try to interfere with his investigation as well by going behind his back, again to FAA supervisor Gawadzinski. But the situation for Southwest was about to change.
In March of 2007 the airline reported to the FAA that it had not done the required fuselage inspections on 47 jets. That's important because certain versions of the Boeing 737 are vulnerable to cracks just above and below the windows. In fact, in 1988, an Aloha Airlines 737 explosively decompressed and blew out 18 feet of its roof. A flight attendant was sucked out to her death, and it was something of a miracle the pilots could even land the plane. The pictures are not to be believed.
But instead of grounding these 47 aircraft and inspecting them for cracks in the skin, Southwest quietly continued to fly these jets. And FAA Inspector Gawadzinski, who knew about Southwest's alleged deception, is accused of helping the airline cover it up.
Whistleblower Doug Peters says the problem at the FAA involves more than one rogue supervisor. He says higher-ups in the agency have known for three years that there were serious problems with aircraft maintenance inspections and have done nothing.
Mr. PETERS: Long story short, it didn't have to come to this. The FAA could have addressed this a long time ago. And the reason that we're here today is because they failed to do so.
GOODWYN: Yesterday, the FAA has tried to do some damage control. The agency has transferred supervisor Gawadzinski and fined Southwest $10 million. Bobby Sturgell is the acting FAA Administrator.
Mr. BOBBY STURGELL (Acting FAA Administrator): We had a breakdown in the system with Southwest Airlines. There is no excuse. We have taken appropriate personnel action in-house. The most important outcome is that we learned from the experience and strengthen our system to reduce the likelihood of a reoccurrence. And for those who question our commitment to safety, I would suggest there's at least one airline today with 10.2 million reasons why those critics are simply wrong.
GOODWYN: For its part, Southwest Airlines at first protested the $10 million fine, then the company fell silent as the extent of the public relations mess became apparent. Ginger Hardage, senior vice president, says the company is investigating.
Ms. GINGER HARDAGE (Senior Vice President): We put three employees on administrative leave. We really accelerated this internal audit even further. We brought in an outside expert, and also the FAA is coming in with a separate independent audit.
GOODWYN: Southwest declined to comment about any of the details regarding its past interactions with the FAA.
It will not be a pleasant day for Southwest executives or FAA officials appearing before the House Transportation Committee and its angry Chairman Jim Oberstar.
The FAA's announcement that four more airlines are now under investigation for failing to comply with federal maintenance regulations only serves to underscore Bobby Boutris's contention that many other FAA investigators have been stymied by their supervisors too.
Boutris says how Congress reacts to this will determine a lot about future aircraft safety.
Mr. BOUTRIS: I want to tell you, we have gotten the support from a lot of fellow inspectors that they're going through the same thing I went through for the last five years. So I think the flying public needs to know that we need their support. This way we can do what we were hired for.
GOODWYN: In the last few days, Bobby Boutris received a death threat for his role as a whistleblower. The FBI says it is investigating.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
MONTAGNE: If it's any consolation, the United States is not the only country with some trouble in the skies. Chinese fliers got a reminder today that Chinese labor is demanding more rights. This is no longer a country where everyone will work under any conditions for even the lowest wages, and the pilots for China Eastern Airlines made that point quite dramatically. The pilots were unhappy over labor issues, and according to state-run newspapers that's the reason they disrupted 14 flights from a single city. The pilots took off as expected, but then turned back mid-way. They blamed bad weather, though it appeared that other airlines were able to complete their flights as normal.