Monday, July 13, 2009

UPDATE: FAA inspectors pounded for doing their job

UPDATE: FAA inspectors pounded for doing their job

By: Barbara Hollingsworth
Local Opinion Editor
07/09/09 12:05 AM EDT

A former FAA safety inspector has asked the Office of Special Counsel to refer a 2005 plane crash near Miami to the Department of Justice to file charges of criminal negligence, manslaughter and a coverup by officials in the Federal Aviation Administration.

Gabe Bruno says that at least one mechanic with phony certification worked on Chalks Ocean Airway’s 58-year-old Grumman G-73T Mallard, which lost a wing and crashed off the coast of Miami shortly after takeoff, killing all 20 people aboard. The mechanic was tested and licensed by Anthony St. George, who was convicted and sentenced to two and a half years in jail FAA for basically selling mechanics licenses without making sure they knew what they were doing.

In 2002, Bruno says, he instituted a retesting program for the 2,000 or so mechanics that were certified by St. George. “The failure rate for the 300 people we retested was between 75 and 80 percent,” he told me.

But former FAA assistant administrator Nicholas Sabatini cancelled the program over Bruno’s strong objections. When retesting was finally reinstated, Bruno says, “it was a rubber-stamp sham, with nobody assigned to monitor the results.”

Three days after the Chalks accident, a mechanic certified by St. George failed the new “dumbed down” exam, and also failed a second exam – even after being given a month to study. “We would have had this guy out of the system three years before” if the FAA’s aviation safety standards were actually being enforced, Bruno pointed out. But in the FAA’s current “culture of non accountability,” mechanics with fraudulent licenses from St. George are still working on aircraft today, endangering the flying public.

And since 2001, Bruno added, a “culture of cronyism” has pervaded the FAA, diminishing the agency’s effectiveness, compromising its ability to protect air passengers and violating the public trust.

“At one time, FAA was the gold standard in the world,” Bruno told me. “But for the past several years, there’s been a lot of disregard for the standards” of aviation safety. Worse, when conscientious FAA employees point out instances in which the agency is caught violating its own standards, they often face harsh retaliation from their own supervisors.

FAA is supposed to make sure that all aircraft meet stringent safety requirements. However, in the past few years, Bruno says, shutting down investigations and retaliating against the very people trying to protect the public has become “the normal way of doing business” at FAA.

Bruno, a 28-year employee and current head of the FAA Whistleblowers Alliance, says he was forced out of his job as a safety manager by Sabatini - who retired after he was caught making “misleading’ statements to Congress - after Bruno handled the merger between troubled Value Jet and Air Tran. “I delivered an operational airline in full compliance [with FAA standards], but FAA refused to approve the application,” Bruno told me. He believes he was forced out of his job because of Sabatini’s personal involvement in fast-tracking the FAA certification of Jet Blue – Air Tran’s major competitor on the East Coast.

“FAA was supposed to be cleaned out top to bottom,” Bruno says. “That hasn’t happened. FAA is supposed to be a safety agency, not a political agency, but their number one product now is office politics.” And many managers who compromised public safety in the past are still ensconced there.

Bruno cited the case of Christopher Monteleon, another FAA safety inspector who brought up pilot training problems and other serious safety concerns at Colgan Air – the subject of two Senate Aviation Subcommittee hearings in June - at least a year before the crash in Buffalo that killed 50 people.

But instead of requiring Colgan to fix the problems he cited, Monteleon’s inspector credential were revoked, he was taken off the case, reassigned three times and is now on administrative leave. He reportedly is even barred from entering FAA or Dept. of Transportation headquarters in Washington even though, as Bruno points out, “everything he said would happen happened.”

“FAA inspectors who are trying to do their job are getting pounded,” Bruno says. Which should greatly alarm anybody who plans on boarding an airplane anytime soon.

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