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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks in the airline industry. Bankruptcies, planes grounded over safety concerns, mayhem in one of the world's busiest airports, London's Heathrow.

We're going to take a look at some of the troubles in the industry and what they could mean for other struggling airlines and for travelers. But first to Capitol Hill.

At a hearing today, lawmakers had harsh words for the industry and the agency that regulates it. House members want to know why Southwest Airlines violated safety rules and why the FAA allowed it to happen.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch was at the hearing.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: The chair of the panel, Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, came to today's hearing angry. He called the violations the most egregious lapse of safety he'd seen in 23 years. And he said it wasn't just an isolated incident or rogue inspector, but a total breakdown at the FAA.

Representative JIM OBERSTAR (Democrat, Minnesota; Chairman, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee): It is misfeasance, malfeasance bordering on corruption. If this were a grand jury proceeding, I think it would result in an indictment.

SCHALCH: The witnesses provided layer upon layer of evidence. First, Bobby Boutris, the whistle-blowing inspector who reported that Southwest had missed required inspections and was flying planes with cracked fuselages.

Mr. BOBBY BOUTRIS (Safety Inspector, Federal Aviation Administration): They did not address anything, and they concentrated their efforts in silencing the messenger.

SCHALCH: Then, Douglas Peters, assistant principal maintenance inspector who sided with Boutris. He choked up as he told how his supervisor warned him not to jeopardize his or his wife's jobs.

Mr. DOUGLAS PETERS (Maintenance Inspector, Federal Aviation Administration): He then pointed to a picture of my family and said, again, this is what's important.

SCHALCH: And there was Michael Mills, further up the chain, who called for an investigation. He discovered that Southwest had missed not only fuselage inspections but inspections of its rudder systems, and had been allowed to keep flying. He told his supervisors.

Mr. MICHAEL MILLS (Assistant Manager, Dallas-Forth Worth, Flight Standards): Their response was a chilling telephone call where I was informed that the region wanted to keep this matter very quiet and low key. Within five days, I was removed from my position as office manager.

SCHALCH: Calvin Scovel, inspector general of the Transportation Department, told the panel the violations whistleblower cited were not trivial. The airlines have to inspect for cracks because of a catastrophic event in 1998.

Mr. CALVIN SCOVEL (Inspector General, U.S. Department of Transportation): Where an aircraft lost a major portion of its fuselage in flight, resulting in one fatality and multiple injuries.

SCHALCH: The plane lost pressure and opened up almost like a convertible, and the flight attendant was killed when she was sucked out. Scovel said the FAA relies too heavily on voluntary disclosures by airlines and treats them too leniently.

Mr. SCOVEL: The balance has tipped too heavily in favor of collaboration at the expense of effective oversight and appropriate enforcement.

Rep. OBERSTAR: Turn your microphone on. We want to hear every word.

SCHALCH: Finally, it was Southwest's CEO Gary Kelly's turn in the hot seat.

Mr. GARY KELLY (CEO, Southwest Airlines): I wish I were a prettier face, Mr. Chairman.

SCHALCH: Kelly says safety was never compromised. He said Southwest modified its planes and thought it could skip this particular inspection, then found out it was wrong.

Mr. KELLY: So what did we do? We reported it to the FAA. We told them what was going on.

SCHALCH: And got permission to keep flying. Nevertheless, Nick Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, said he was shocked by what happened.

Mr. NICK SABATINI (Associate Administrator for Aviation safety, FAA): That an airline of Southwest's reputation would ever think that flying passengers in noncompliant aircraft was appropriate is astounding to me. Even more alarming and upsetting to me is that this was done with the implicit consent of one of my aviation safety inspectors.

SCHALCH: That inspector has been reassigned, and Southwest was hit with a record $10 million fine.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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