CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's probably worth asking: Is air travel safer now? Over the past month, four major U.S. carriers canceled hundreds of flights to conduct sudden inspections, costing millions of dollars and inconveniencing thousands of passengers. Plentiful media coverage followed, and last week the House Transportation Committee heard Federal Aviation Administration whistleblowers detail their struggles to draw attention to improper maintenance procedures at Southwest ( LUV). As committee chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D., Minn.) said repeatedly, the committee's very public interest in the FAA's failed oversight of Southwest prompted inspections at AMR's ( AMR) American, Delta ( DAL) and UAL's ( UAUA) United. Airline safety is a complex and emotional topic, but it is difficult to conclude that the disruptions at the latter three carriers were justified by imminent safety concerns. Instead, the events were partially theater, required by a perceived need at a time of intense scrutiny to clearly demonstrate a commitment to safety. In the case of United, for instance, the carrier grounded its fleet of 52 Boeing 777s because it believed it had failed to direct its maintenance workers to test a component of the cargo fire-suppression system. A further review indicated that the test was not initially included in the Boeing maintenance manual, although it was included in a later revision. Still, United acted immediately to perform the tests. "We all share in the industry's responsibility for safety and there is no obligation that we take more seriously," said Pete McDonald, chief operating officer, in a prepared statement. Worth noting is that commercial aviation in the U.S. is probably the safest transportation system in the history of the world. Occasional skirmishes around the margins are no doubt helpful in keeping it that way. But sudden flight disruptions, while they inconvenience travelers, do not necessarily enhance safety. As for the hearing, its value was in revealing that, sadly, the FAA remains an agency where dissenting views on safety are not welcome. Perhaps in the aftermath of recent events, they will be.
A Case Study in Conflict
Ground zero of this skirmish is the Dallas FAA office that oversees Southwest, where dysfunctional politics were the norm. It was a place where one manager ruminated at length on the seating at an office event, after his antagonist landed at the table reserved for higher-up FAA executives who were visiting from out of town. This would be a sitcom, if safety were not involved. That antagonist was principal maintenance inspector Douglas Gawadzinski, who had grown too close to the airline he was supposed to regulate, some agents said last week. Like many managers, he was surrounded by loyalists who worked for him. He failed to back up his inspectors, even though sound inspections are difficult without the proper support. The inspectors who weren't in the Gawadzinski group, and their backers, became outsiders. Eventually, one was removed from his job after Southwest complained, one was placed in another office, and one decided to move. Two inspectors became whistleblowers, and they spoke at last week's hearing. For his part, Gawadzinski -- who did not appear at the hearing -- was vilified, and witnesses said his cozy relationship with Southwest flourished. Ultimately, they said, it led to his allowing the carrier to operate aircraft in defiance of mandatory inspections. Even then, maintenance redundancies ensured that safety was not compromised, but safety protocol was trashed. Maintenance safety consultant John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member, says the other three airlines who called off flights "were being very conservative. They were looking over their shoulder at the $10 million fine against Southwest that is hanging out there, and at the fact that the FAA is getting tougher.