Why Southwest’s Boeings Keep Coming Apart—Part III

As you’ve already seen from this week’s previous two blog entries, things were getting dicey, but not for Southwest Airlines and not for the FAA managers who were covering for Southwest.  Rather, things were going from bad to worse for the dedicated FAA inspector who was struggling to do his job and protect the flying public against overwhelming odds and threats of retaliation.

Today I present the final portion of Chapter Five of The Tombstone Agency:

Chapter Five
Why Inspectors Don’t Inspect
Unlawful Retaliation at the FAA

Meanwhile as Boutris continued working the AD Management SAI, he found himself suddenly ordered to cease the inspection while only two pages into the seven-page report.  He had already uncovered twenty-one problem areas when Mr. G ordered him to turn over all his assignments, including the ongoing SAI.  Now assigned to two other inspectors (including interestingly Mr. C.), the SAI went from twenty-one negative findings in only two pages, to fifty positive findings and only eight negatives in the full report—an astonishing turn of events that, upon scrutiny of the report, could not be justified by the numerous inconsistencies contained therein.

Bear in mind that this report was to analyze Southwest’s ability to manage and track their compliance with Airworthiness Directives, a system which Southwest had already proven was in shambles by the mere fact that their aircraft routinely missed required AD inspections, and even flew in illegally unsafe conditions for years without corrective action.  Also recall that when Southwest realized passengers were being flown in unsafe, illegally maintained aircraft, the airline did not know within fifty or more the true number of aircraft affected.  It is inconceivable that this performance warranted an SAI garnering fifty favorable findings and only eight negative ones.  One is rightfully left wondering what negligence would need to be demonstrated to earn a failing report from Mr. G.’s office and his hand-picked, pro-Southwest inspection team.

But what of Mr. Boutris, the dedicated inspector who first blew the whistle on this exploding scandal?  Why were his duties suddenly turned over to other inspectors, inspectors handpicked by Mr. G.?  On April 9, 2007, Bobby Boutris found there was a price to pay for going up against Southwest Airlines.  An anonymous letter purportedly written by a Southwest Airlines mechanic stated that Boutris had expressed anger at Southwest for having denied him a job.  More seriously, the author also claimed that Boutris boasted of successfully circumventing airport security by smuggling a weapon aboard an airliner.  No proof was offered.  No corroboration given.  Just an anonymously written letter with absolutely nothing to back up the serious, career-jeopardizing allegations contained therein.

Mr. G. immediately embraced this letter as grounds for exiling Boutris to desk duties, keeping him well away from Southwest, their aircraft, mechanics, and Southwest’s AD tracking systems, and more importantly at this point, the ongoing SAI.  In other words, what Southwest could not do overtly by direct request, someone within Southwest managed to do covertly under the guise of an anonymous letter.  In the end Southwest proved that they indeed did have final veto authority over which FAA inspectors would be allowed access to their operation.

FAA Security immediately launched an investigation into the allegations.  This alone is enough to strike terror in even the most honest and upstanding FAA employee.  The author of this book has personally seen this office in action.  They seldom arrive in the field without a preordained, management-directed finding, looking for ways to substantiate already drawn conclusions.  Seldom if ever does the initiating management official find their actions questioned.  Instead the target of the investigation is invariably a subordinate who is often denied union representation, questioned without witnesses, coerced into signing statements that many times reflect words they never spoke and placed in contexts they never expressed.

Very fortunately for both Mr. Boutris and those who fly in Southwest Airlines aircraft, this security investigation was not typical.  This might be attributed to the fact that Boutris had just days before exposed Mr. G.’s complicity to officials higher up within the agency.  In that complaint, Boutris tied Mr. G. to a former FAA inspector, Mr. P., now working for Southwest and whose employment Boutris had questioned as a potential conflict of interest prior to the events leading to Boutris’ current predicament.  Another possible reason why FAA Security did not conduct their usual lynching may be the sympathetic support Boutris enjoyed from other managers such as Michael Mills.  Or possibly, and in the author’s opinion most likely, the blossoming scandal was rapidly in danger of becoming public.  Mr. G. had violated a couple of cardinal FAA management rules—don’t get caught, and don’t embarrass higher management.  For whatever reason, Boutris found himself cleared of any wrongdoing in very short order.

Now it was Mr. Boutris’ turn to fire back at his accusers—those within agency management, the anonymous Southwest Airlines tipster, and Southwest Airlines themselves.  Congressional testimony gives a hint as to how far up the management chain this conspiracy to violate FAA regulations went.  “In one of the statements that were made by the FAA regarding the operation of the SWA aircraft in revenue service with the overdue AD inspections, it was stated that one FAA inspector looked the other way.  I am here to report that more than one FAA inspector along with FAA management have been looking the other way for years.  No supervisor can do what my supervisor was doing without the support from fellow inspectors, the support of the Division Management Team (who were fully aware of what was going on) and I believe with the support from some people in Washington.  This should be obvious, I was the only maintenance inspector that kept finding and raising these safety concerns since 2003, and when they were elevated to the Division Management Team nothing was done about it.  Every time I pointed out to (Mr. G.) that he was not following our mandated guidance regarding safety violations in the presence of the office manager Mr. Mills, (Mr. G.) would respond that our guidance was outdated and that he was talking to Jim Ballough (Director, Flight Standards)….”

Boutris went on to testify, “Mr. Mills always looked into my safety concerns and supported my findings; however, every time he elevated them to the Division Management Team at the Regional Office he received no support.  Under the circumstances that I just described, no matter how good of a manager a person is, without upper management support the system makes him ineffective.”

The other hero identified in this chapter is Douglas E. Peters.  He validated everything Boutris was saying about Southwest, and he refused to back off even when threatened with not only his job, but also the job of his wife.  That is correct—the careers of both Peters and his FAA-employed wife were directly threatened by an FAA manager.

When the heat got too much for upper FAA management, both the SWA CMO manager and PMI were temporarily removed.  The agency placed as acting manager of the SWA CMO Mr. H..  Mr. H. one day stopped by Peters’ office and sat down for a chat.  Peters mentioned that he would be sending to Mr. H. a memo detailing the unethical behavior within the SWA CMO of several inspectors.  He told Mr. H. he was doing so because it was, “… the right thing to do.”

Mr. H. verbally agreed, repeating the same words.  But as he stood to leave, Mr. H. picked up a picture of Peters’ son.  “This is what’s important, family and flying,” Mr. H. remarked.  He pointed toward another picture, a portrait of the entire Peters family.  “This is what is important,” he repeated.  Then came the bombshell.  “You have a good job here and your wife has a good job over at the Dallas FSDO.  I’d hate to see you jeopardize your and her careers trying to take down a couple of losers.”

The message from upper FAA management was clear—Douglas Peters should consider job security for both himself and his wife over his sworn duty to protect the flying public.  Managers higher up the food chain would not tolerate any more public embarrassments.

Indeed, so ingrained was this look-the-other-way culture within FSDO that Mills quoted Mr. T., FAA Assistant Manager for the American Airlines CMO, as saying, “In the air carrier world you have to make deals.”

That one quote says it all.  In the world of air carrier regulation FAA managers expect inspectors to make deals involving the safety and security of the flying public.

copyright © 2011 R. Doug Wicker

No portions of this article are to be used, quoted, copied, or retransmitted without the permission of the author.


Filed under Aviation Safety, Books

2 responses to “Why Southwest’s Boeings Keep Coming Apart—Part III

  1. David K. Williams

    The author should go on AC360 or some similar show to discuss this.

  2. Pingback: The Tombstone Agency | Martinlady's View Through the Looking Glass