A House committee reported the findings of its investigation into the Federal Aviation Agency's safety oversight Thursday and heard testimony from airline safety inspectors and the Transportation Department's inspector general.
The whistleblowers who exposed maintenance and inspection problems at Southwest Airlines told Congress their jobs were threatened and their reports of noncompliance were ignored for years by their superiors.
FAA inspector Douglas Peters choked up Thursday at the hearing and needed a few sips of water to tell lawmakers about how a former manager came into his office, commented on pictures of Peters' family being most important, and then said his job could be jeopardized by his actions.
Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said FAA managers' actions displayed "malfeasance bordering on corruption," adding that if presented to a grand jury, the evidence would result in an indictment.
The Minnesota Democrat led Thursday's hearing.
The FAA last month took the rare step of ordering the audit of maintenance records at all domestic carriers following reports of missed safety inspections at Dallas-based Southwest. The airline was hit with a record $10.2 million fine for continuing to fly dozens of Boeing 737s that hadn't been inspected for cracks in their fuselages.
Both FAA whistleblowers - Charalambe Boutris and Peters - said the agency views the airlines as its "customers" instead of companies to be regulated. They said the FAA's chief maintenance inspector at Southwest, Douglas T. Gawadzinski, knowingly allowed Southwest to keep planes flying that put passengers at risk, and that another inspector knew of the problem and did nothing.
Gawadzinski is still employed by the FAA, but has no responsibility for safety decisions, said Nicholas Sabatini, the agency's associate administrator for aviation safety. The FAA will "take whatever action the law will allow" when the investigation into the Southwest episode is complete, he added.
Gawadzinski was not asked to testify at Thursday's hearing because he was considered to be a hostile witness who would most likely refuse to answer questions that could have incriminated himself, according to a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Chairman Oberstar said as long as the FAA views the airlines as customers "that culture of safety will not take hold and is not going to permeate the organization."
Southwest is not the only carrier that has benefited from a "cozy" relationship with regulators, said Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union that represents FAA inspectors.
In testimony prepared for the hearing, Brantley details maintenance and safety issues at United, Continental Airlines Inc., Northwest Airlines Corp., Hawaiian Airlines Inc. and elsewhere where the carriers were given great leeway by the FAA to correct problems that inspectors on the ground said merited more serious attention. Financial penalties for infractions suggested by inspectors against United and other carriers also were ignored or significantly reduced by the time they were assessed, he added.
Adding to the airline industry's problems is the growing number of U.S. air travelers who have endured longer lines, more delays and the loss of amenities like meals and blankets.
And now they are getting hit with a wave of schedule disruptions caused by airlines scrambling amid increased regulatory scrutiny to ensure that the expanding air transport system stays safe.
The latest complication came Wednesday, when United Airlinesdozens of Boeing 777s to test their cargo fire-suppression systems.
United said it canceled 41 flights and delayed dozens of others as it carried out work on the long-haul jets after a review of maintenance records showed that a test on a bottle in the fire suppression system hadn't been performed.
The move affected thousands of passengers around the world, as United's 777s mostly fly international routes from its major hubs. Among those grounded was a 777 used by many members of the White House press corps, who were traveling with President Bush in Romania - though it wasn't set to fly again until Friday.
United, a subsidiary of UAL Corp., said Wednesday that the 777s have "intuitive" self-diagnostic systems that would have detected any malfunction with the fire suppression system. The company said it alerted authorities after the missed test was discovered.
Testing on all 52 of United's 777s - 11 percent of its overall fleet - was expected to be completed sometime Thursday. The Chicago-based carrier said 36 of the jets had been inspected and cleared to fly by late afternoon Wednesday. The planes fly mostly from Chicago O'Hare, Denver, Washington Dulles, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
United carried out unscheduled maintenance on seven of its Boeing 747 jets last month but said it found no safety-related issues.
Schedule foul-ups due to inspections have been commonplace since early March, including hundreds of flights canceled last week by American Airlines and Delta Air Lines as they checked wiring bundles on some planes. Stepped-up inspections began when the Federal Aviation Administration ordered a check of maintenance records at all domestic carriers after revelations surfaced about missed safety inspections at Southwest Airlines Co.
The FAA said Wednesday that four U.S. airlines are under investigation for failing to comply with federal aviation regulations, but would not name the carriers. Officials said three airlines had missed inspection deadlines and that penalties could be levied, though it would be several months before the probe was complete.
Industry experts warned that passengers can expect more headaches as the FAA and airlines work to guarantee safety amid the rise in air travel - though federal officials are quick to note that this has been one of the safest periods in aviation history.
The last U.S. crash of a jumbo jet was Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 lost part of its tail and plummeted into a New York City neighborhood, killing 265 people.