This isn't an especially political story, but I was nevertheless amazed by what we learned at a hearing late last week of the House Transportation Com
April 7, 2008

This isn't an especially political story, but I was nevertheless amazed by what we learned at a hearing late last week of the House Transportation Committee. We're not allowed to fly with more than a few ounces of shampoo in a carry-on, but you might be amazed at what airlines can get away with.

In startling disclosures to Congress, federal inspectors overseeing Southwest Airlines say they were repeatedly thwarted by senior government officials from reporting critical problems that compromised the safety of passengers.

Federal whistle-blowers, other federal aviation inspectors and the independent investigator for the Department of Transportation testified Thursday that problems at Southwest were far more widespread than has previously been reported.

Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel said investigators in recent months found violations at the airline in addition to the breaches last year that prompted a $10.2 million fine against the carrier. Southwest violated four different crucial safety requirements on eight occasions since December 2006, including five this year, Scovel said.... Southwest knowingly flew 46 jets that had not received required inspections for cracks in the fuselage. When the inspections were finally completed, mechanics found cracks on six of the jets. Similar cracks caused a fatal air disaster on a jet in 1988 in Hawaii.

If this were simply a story of an airline trying to cut corners, and in the process putting passengers at risk, it would be startling enough. But in this case, we're talking about federal inspectors who were pressured by their superiors to allow an airline to put passengers at risk.

Apparently, the Texas office of the Transportation Department was staffed with people sympathetic to Southwest, so when inspectors raised concerns about safety breaches, regional managers reportedly ignored the warnings.

And as if negligence wasn't enough, Transportation Department officials apparently threatened inspectors who sought to protect public safety. Indeed, inspectors testified about "attempted revenge, orders to destroy incriminating documents and fears that a conspiracy may have extended to the FAA's Washington headquarters."

In one example, whistleblower Bobby Boutris told lawmakers about his experience after he found evidence of missed inspections. Boutris' Transportation Department supervisor ordered him not to enter negative findings against Southwest into the FAA's computer. Here's the punch-line: that supervisor has since been reassigned, but faced no disciplinary action. "What do you have to do to get fired there?"

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) asked.

I've been wondering the same thing about the Bush administration for years.

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