Last Updated May 23, 2019 9:57 AM EDT
In an exclusive CBS News investigation, we spoke to roughly a dozen FAA inspectors from across the country. Some risked their jobs to blow the whistle on how they say they are told to overlook important problems.
Two Federal Aviation Administration inspectors – each with a decade of experience with the FAA – say they have an urgent message for U.S. travelers: "people's lives" could be at stake. They told CBS News "the flying public needs to wake up" and that people need to know flying "is not as safe as it could be." Both asked to remain anonymous because they fear losing their jobs for speaking out.
"I've had reports that I had entered into our database one day were there and the next morning, they're gone," one told "CBS This Morning" co-host Tony Dokoupil.
They say managers at the FAA pressure inspectors like them to ignore critical safety issues like corrosion or making sure vendors were FAA compliant and retaliated if inspectors refused to back off.
"I've been flat out told to back off," one inspector said. "I've had airlines contact my management and ask them not to assign me any inspections to that airline."
The other inspector said they've "repeatedly" been punished for finding a problem and reporting it and they're not alone: "It's very widespread."
A 2016 Inspector General's report echoes their concerns. It found that another FAA inspector, Charles Banks, was pressured to back off an airline then was punished by management. When reached by CBS News, Banks confirmed that he was punished by the FAA for filing reports of problems with Miami Air International.
Miami Air International is a charter service with about a thousand government contracts worth more than $200 million in just the past five years. Earlier this month, one of its charters – carrying U.S. military troops from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – made a crash landing in Jacksonville, Florida. No one died and the cause isn't yet known. But that wasn't the first time the company has had trouble ferrying troops. In 2017, the airline had multiple problems with vendor fuel lines – problems Banks had flagged in his earlier reports.
Banks told CBS News that he still works as an FAA inspector but has been removed off Miami Air International.
The same inspector who said people's lives are at stake said that while the FAA should be serving the flying public, in reality, they've "heard airlines referred to as customers, as stakeholders."
"I've also heard inspectors say at 'my' airline at 'our airline.' It's not my airline," they said.
In 2015, the FAA adopted a compliance program focused on "mutual cooperation" with airlines instead of "a traditional, enforcement-focused regulatory model."
When asked if the FAA is too cozy with the airlines, the other inspector we spoke with said, "I think they are leaning more towards the airlines, the upper management is. Yes." That inspector said they believe there are airlines out there today that should be fined.
"Are there airlines out there today that you believe should be grounded?" Dokoupil asked.
"I think there's a few airlines out there we need to take a hard look at doing that to," they said.
The FAA declined CBS News' request for an interview, but told CBS News that it "has a comprehensive safety oversight system that encourages the sharing of information to identify problems and ensure they are fixed." The agency also wrote in a statement "the U.S. aviation system has a safety record that is unprecedented in history" with only one domestic death in the past 10 years.
One of the inspectors said, "We're on the verge of an issue happening …. we're talking about a crash inside the United States borders."
They both pointed to incidents like the and – both related to U.S. manufacturer Boeing whose own relationship with the FAA is under scrutiny as indicators of what could happen. They hope that what they told CBS News will be a wake-up call.
"I'm here to make sure there's no blood on my hands."
Like the FAA, Miami Air International declined our request for an interview. In a statement, it referred CBS News to the NTSB about the crash landing in Jacksonville and said it has procedures in place to comply with FAA requirements.
Since the FAA put its compliance model in place, enforcement actions like fines and penalties fell by 70 percent between 2014 and 2017.
FAA's full statement:
"The FAA has a comprehensive safety oversight system that encourages the sharing of information to identify problems and ensure they are fixed. Critical to this success is an environment in which all employees feel free and unencumbered to report what they believe are important safety concerns. While we have worked hard to create a sustainable culture of safety through an open and transparent exchange of information since the 1990s, we also have strong whistleblower protections in place for any employees who fear reprisals for reporting safety information. We take these protections very seriously, and we encourage any aviation professional who is afraid to report safety information to take advantage of this important program. The FAA thoroughly investigates all safety hotline and whistleblower claims, and does not tolerate reprisals against people who report concerns."
Additional background the FAA provided:
• The U.S. aviation system has a safety record that is unprecedented in history. During the past decade, more than 7 billion passengers have flown on 90 million U.S. air carrier flights with one fatality.
• Air carrier oversight is not an activity that safety inspectors engage in by themselves. We expect inspectors to consult with subject matter experts and their leadership to ensure the decisions they make are correct and consistent across the aviation community. Disagreements may occur and are a normal part of any deliberative process. Any changes in inspectors' initial recommendations should be coordinated among the inspector, subject matter experts and leadership.
• The FAA does not tolerate the leadership behavior described in the DOT Inspector General's report on the Miami Air whistleblower's allegations. The agency took appropriate action in response to the report's findings.
• The FAA conducts regular evaluations to determine whether the agency's oversight approach is being properly and consistently interpreted and implemented. The agency also conducts recurrent oversight training based on feedback from safety inspectors, managers and other stakeholders.
Miami Air International's full statement: