Southwest admits ’screw-up’ after allowing unsafe airplanes to fly
By DAVE MONTGOMERY
WASHINGTON – Mid-level officials with the Federal Aviation Administration allowed Southwest Airlines to continue flying potentially unsafe airplanes and suppressed efforts by subordinates to correct the problem, a congressional oversight committee was told Thursday.
“If this were a grand jury proceeding, I think it would result in an indictment,” Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said midway through testimony by nearly 20 witnesses.
Southwest Airlines’ executive chairman, Herb Kelleher, and chief executive, Gary Kelly, defended the safety record of the Dallas-based carrier, which faces a record $10.2 million penalty from the FAA for flying planes that should have been inspected for cracks in the fuselage.
Kelleher told the committee the airline “screwed up” by continuing to fly planes that should have been grounded. But he said the FAA’s regional office gave the go-ahead for the flights while Southwest sought to fix what he described as tiny cracks that the airline officials had reported to the agency.
“We should not have (continued the flights), and we have learned our lesson,” Kelleher said. “I apologize to this committee. I realize these planes should not have flown.”
He also said he wanted to counter any impression that Southwest is “just rumbling around the skies” with cracks in uninspected planes, saying the company’s aircraft are “inspected over and over and over again.”
But several FAA employees, including two inspectors testifying as government whistle-blowers, presented a picture of lax enforcement, sloppy documentation, and collaboration between Southwest and the FAA Certificate Management Office. Located near Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, the office is responsible for overseeing the airline’s compliance with FAA safety regulations.
“I am here today because I am concerned for the safety of the flying public,” said FAA inspector Bobby Boutris, who along with fellow whistleblower Douglas Peters, exposed the allegations that led to Thursday’s hearing.
Boutris later told reporters he has received a death threat through the mail but declined to provide further details.
Other FAA employees supported their account that principal maintenance inspector Douglas Gawadzinski and other supervisory officials were friends of Southwest personnel and unresponsive in looking into possible safety problems involving the airline.
Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, said the accounts detailed by the employees showed a pattern of “egregious” behavior and promised to pursue the allegations “with the full measure of the law.” He called Boutris “a hero.”
Several lawmakers appeared astonished to learn that Gawadzinski remains with the FAA. He has been reassigned and has no authority over safety, Sabatini said.
“What do you have to do to get fired there?” asked Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas. Sabatini said Gawadzinski cannot be dismissed until the FAA completes its internal investigation.
The FAA last month levied the penalty against Southwest for continuing to fly aircraft that should have been inspected for cracks that, if uncorrected, could cause the fuselage to rupture. But Oberstar and other congressional critics said the problems were first detected more than a year ago and suggested the FAA moved to penalize the airline only after the whistleblowers stepped forward.
Calvin Scovel, inspector general for the Transportation Department, the FAA’s parent department, said 46 aircraft flew in violation of the airline directive requiring fuselage inspections, carrying an estimated 6 million passengers on more than 60,000 flights.
Kelleher and Kelly, in their opening statement, said Southwest inspects “every inch of its aircraft” for cracks but inadvertently missed “a small area” because of a record-keeping error. “It is…important to dispel the impression that we did not inspect our airplanes for skin cracks,” the two Southwest executives said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
They said they didn’t learn details about the controversy until February and March, after the FAA levied its penalty against the airline and Oberstar held a press conference to outline the whistleblower allegations.
“Two issues had to be addressed immediately,” they said. “The first was that better judgment should have been exercised than to allow those aircraft to fly after the potential non-compliance was discovered. The second was that senior management should have been consulted on such a significant issue but was not.”
Boutris and other FAA employees said Southwest also flew 70 airliners past the timetable for submitting them for inspection for a component of the rudder system.
The hearing raised questions about the FAA’s voluntary disclosure policy that allows airlines to escape penalties if they detect a problem first and report it to the FAA for correction. The FAA whistleblowers, as well as the inspector general’s review, said Southwest reported the cracks in the fuselage but were allowed to keep flying the planes in what Boutris called a “known unsafe condition” instead of having them grounded.
Scovel said his review showed that Gawadzinsky “should have immediately grounded the aircraft and notified his management of the seriousness of the situation.” The inspector general also criticized the FAA for what he called “an overly collaborative relationship” with Southwest.
“I put most of the blame on the FAA,” Rep. Johnson said.
Oberstar praised the FAA employees for their “courage” in stepping forward in the face of what they described what as intimidation and, in some cases, retaliation by their superiors. Peters struggled to control his emotions as he told of a supervisor who picked up a picture of Peters’ family and suggested that he could “jeopardize” his career at FAA by pursuing the issue.
Fort Worth coach suspended after a verbally abusing an official
By CARLOS MENDEZ
Star-Telegram staff writer
Scott Gray reached a high point in his career last month when he led the Fort Worth Southwest boys basketball team to the Class 4A state championship game.
But after the Raiders lost by three points and their star player fouled out in the final minute, the veteran coach wondered aloud about the level of the officiating.
Thursday, he learned that his thoughts cost him a season of coaching. The UIL suspended him for one year following a hearing at the UIL offices, saying he violated a rule against verbal abuse of an official.
In the postgame news conference in Austin on March 8, Gray told reporters he wished the game could have been called by officials who are used to a fast pace, “like Houston or Dallas or Fort Worth” and not someone “from Amarillo.”
Gray, who already had plans to step down after 14 years at Southwest, said the penalty goes too far. He said he didn’t complain about the call that cost him his best player, Kendall Timmons, and that he never used abusive language.
“They said the rule says you should accept officials’ calls without protest,” he said. “During the game, I did. I was mad about the call with Kendall, but I didn’t say anything to the referee. I sat there and took it. But accept a call without protest? That happens at every game. And I’ve never read anything in the UIL handbook that says you can’t talk about the officials to the media.”
The decision cannot be appealed. It was made by the UIL’s State Executive Committee, made up of school superintendents from across the state. Committee chair Mike Motheral of Sundown was not available for comment Friday.
Gray announced before the playoffs that he planned to step down at Southwest after the season and either retire or sit out a season before looking for another job.
Gray would have to serve the suspension on his next high school job.
Professor Kim Jones
After three years of remastering the university’s library website, UT-Arlington revealed its new user-friendly BETA site for all to see in August of 2010.
Officials started collaborating with OIT in May of 2010 and launched the earliest Beta version in August 2010. The latest version is the most advanced to date.
After conducting a campus-wide web survey asking students what they wanted from the website, library officials were able to make positive changes to the website. After receiving negative feedback from students and professors saying that the website was hard to use library officials made some changes, said Digital Library Services Program Coordinator Karen Horsfall.
The websites new features include better search capabilities, more links to related websites and content, and a more focused and less technical website.
“People find it easier to use,” said Horsfall. “What we’ve done is what students wanted us to do,” she said.
The library used a cascade server, a server made specifically for managing large amounts of content, for content management and during the course of a year condensed more than 900 pages of online material and reduced the content to 300 pages.
While collaborating with OIT, many library officials learned through training sessions how to edit and publish content themselves.
“The library is one of the most knowledgeable departments on campus,” said web application developer Doris I. Gammenthaler. “We just provided technical support.”
With the new changes, many students find the website mush easier to use and take advantage of the available resources more often.
“Getting started with your research is easier,” said freshman journalism major Vallari Gupte. “It’s pretty much the same thing except it’s more interactive, more direct and more appealing.”
Library officials plan on updating the site as regularly.