Whistleblowers, the FAA, and “Airworthiness”

Locations in this article:  Amsterdam, Netherlands Chicago, IL

Skybus PlaneWe didn’t have one … we didn’t have two … we had three airlines that went out of business, one after another: Aloha on Monday, then ATA, and on Friday night, Skybus ceased operations.

That’s three airlines going under in one week.

And overseas, Alitalia is hanging in there precariously after the deal from Air France to buy them completely fell apart.


If you read the headlines, you’d think it was a really bad soap opera.

It was all about revenge and threats on the front page of the USA Today.

And you thought the Southwest story was going away? Uh uh, it is getting worse.

The whistleblowers testified before Senate and House committees (and I have to tell you, its not easy to listen to it) that there seems to be a pervasive pattern with the FAA being too cozy with the airlines it is supposed to regulate.

Air Traffic Patterns USAThe FAA was given a mandate by Congress when it started the agency in 1935, which it can’t possibly perform because it is schizophrenic. It wants them to enforce and make airline policy and safety regulations — and at the same time promote the business of aviation. You cannot do both.

Every time the agency is confronted with a choice between economic impact and safety, guess where they go? Economic impact.

Now, guess what came out in the committee meeting in the hearings yesterday? That there is a policy in the FAA that actually allows airlines to avoid penalties by voluntarily disclosing their violations when they discover a problem. Hello? Gee, would I go to jail if I voluntarily disclosed to the bank that I was robbing them?

The real problem is how many inspectors do you have?

First of all, on every single level the FAA is understaffed—not enough air traffic controllers, not enough inspectors on every step of the way. For example, are the inspectors looking at the physical maintenance? Or are they just inspecting the paperwork that says the maintenance has been done? Anybody can check off a box. And that’s in this country.

What about the airlines like US Air and JetBlue that send their planes overseas for maintenance? Now trust me, I have no problem whatsoever with people who outsource maintenance, in fact, the work that is done in El Salvador for both US Air and JetBlue is excellent work, but that’s not the point. Who is physically inspecting the work?

If the answer is “we’re just inspecting the paperwork,” we got a problem.

I was in Chicago the other day and bumped into an FAA inspector while we were standing at the counter waiting for a plane that was late. I asked him who he was an inspector for.

And he said, “My assignment is to inspect all the planes flown by Mesa Airlines.” (Most people don’t realize it, but one of the airlines Mesa flies is an airline in Hawaii called Go! which many people feel is responsible for the demise of Aloha Airlines.)

I said to him, “Well, don’t you guys also inspect Go! in Hawaii?”

He said “Yeah.”

I said, “When was the last time you were in Hawaii?”

“Well, I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

You know, that doesn’t give me a comforting feeling.

The bottom line is you either inspect the maintenance or you ground the planes.


There is a whole issue called “airworthiness directives.” As I explained last week, there are three different kinds of airworthiness directives that the FAA could issue:

  • The weakest one is called a service bulletin which says when you bring the plane in for regular maintenance you might want to take a look at this, but there is no deadline, there is no sense of urgency.
  • Then, there is something called a “modified airworthiness directive” which says, we’ve discovered a problem and, by the way, there is also a solution and we’ll give you three years to fix it. That one really makes me mad.
  • And then the third one is the airworthiness directive that basically says you cannot fly this plane or this type of aircraft until it is fixed immediately with this problem. How often does the FAA issue that kind of airworthiness directive? Hardly ever!

So what happened when you saw American Airlines ground their fleet of MD-80s, when you saw Delta do the same thing, when you saw United Airlines ground their entire fleet of 777s this week. You know what that was?

In the wake of the disclosure of the cozy relationship between the FAA and Southwest airlines, all these three airlines said “We had all these airworthiness directives from the FAA that go back two or three years and we haven’t gotten around to it yet and the deadline is coming up in about five days. We better fix it or we’re going to get fined.”

First of all, why did it take them three years to do it?

FAA Logo And second of all, had the FAA thing had not surfaced with Southwest Airlines, would any of this other grounding happened?

So, the bottom line here is we’re just getting started. When you saw those FAA whistleblowers on the stand, in front of the committee and Congress, start to cry about how their jobs were threatened, how their families were threatened by their own supervisors because they wanted to do inspections on planes—what does that tell you about where the FAA interests lie?

I’m not shy about this. This is wrong, it has to stop.

And here is the most interesting thing: The airline industry will make the argument—and by the way, I can’t argue with this argument—that we’ve enjoyed the most incredibly phenomenal air safety record in almost seven years. We haven’t had a major jet fatality in this county since November 11, 2001 when we lost an American Airbus after takeoff from JFK.

Now, there may be 35,000 flights in the air today, tomorrow, the next day, yesterday and nothing happened. That is an amazing safety record. It is great, we should all applaud ourselves. Now, can we improve that safety record? No, you’re batting 1,000.

But how do you maintain it? You don’t maintain it when you have a culture of the FAA that allows people to slide, when you don’t have enough staff people to inspect the planes and when you’re dealing with an aging aircraft fleet, that requires—by definition—more and more maintenance.

When GM recalls a car, you bring it in. They don’t give you three years to bring it in. Why do they give the airlines three years to fix something? That is absolutely wrong.


When we talk about revenge and threats and everything else, it’s not just the FAA and Southwest airlines … it’s Naomi Campbell.

That’s right, the woman who needs anger management classes again did it again yesterday at Heathrow. She gets arrested why? Because they lost her bag.

Guess what? They lost 29,999 other bags. It’s out of control at Terminal 5.

You know how much I feel about Heathrow, you know how much I love it right? They keep on keeping on.

Thirty thousand bags and you know where they ended up? In Milan.

Read more from Peter’s Travel Detective Blog.

From Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio

Previous Coverage of FAA “Inspection-Gate”:

Travel Detective Blog: Airline Safety Starts With Maintenance

Southwest Suspended, FAA Employees Reassigned

FAA Groundings & Hawaiian Flights

Southwest Flew Unsafe Planes, FAA Under Fire