Airline Safety: A Whistleblower's Tale
Jan 31, 2008
After mechanics at Northwest Airlines went out on strike on Aug. 20, 2005, Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector Mark Lund began to see troubling signs. One replacement mechanic didn't know how to test an engine. Another couldn't close a cabin door. Many did not seem properly trained. In Lund's view, their inexperience resulted in dangerous mistakes. One DC-10, for example, had a broken lavatory duct that allowed human waste to spill onto vital navigation equipment. The leak developed during a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. Northwest (NWA) planned to let the plane continue on to Honolulu with the perilous and putrid problem unfixed—until one of Lund's fellow safety inspectors in Minneapolis intervened.
Just two days after the strike began, Lund fired off a "safety recommendation for accident prevention" letter to his supervisors and to FAA headquarters in Washington. It was the loudest alarm he had the authority to ring. Claiming that "a situation exists that jeopardizes life," Lund proposed cutting back on Northwest's flight schedule until mechanics and inspectors could do their job "without error." But instead of taking harsh action against the airline, the agency punished him. On Aug. 29, Lund's supervisors confiscated the badge that gave him access to Northwest's facilities and gave him a desk job. That happened to be the same day the airline sent a letter to the FAA complaining about Lund's allegedly disruptive and unprofessional conduct. The FAA says it treated Lund fairly.
As the airline escalated its war against Lund, he counterattacked. Going over the heads of multiple layers of FAA managers, Lund faxed his safety recommendation to Mark Dayton, then the Democratic senator for Northwest's home state of Minnesota. Dayton, in turn, brought the matter to the attention of the Inspector General for the Transportation Dept., which oversees the FAA.
In the two years after Lund blew the whistle on the unaddressed problems he perceived at Northwest, he says, the FAA made his life uncomfortable. Now Lund is returning the favor. On Sept. 27, 2007, the Inspector General released a report on the episode that lambasted the FAA for its treatment of Lund, who held on to his job despite what he claims was an effort to fire him. At the request of the Inspector General, the agency is now in the process of modifying the procedures it uses to review safety allegations raised by inspectors. The FAA is bracing for more scrutiny on this issue. In March, the House aviation subcommittee plans to hold a hearing on an alleged incident of retaliation involving an inspector for Southwest Airlines.
The "FAA's handling of [Lund's] safety concerns appeared to focus on discounting the validity of the complaints," the Inspector General's office wrote in its report. "A potential negative consequence of FAA's handling of this safety recommendation is that the other inspectors may be discouraged from bringing safety issues to FAA's attention."
Lund's story shines a spotlight on a conflict that most passengers have no idea exists: the one between safety inspectors and airlines. The inspectors are the on-the-ground cops who ensure that engines fire up properly, that the wing flaps function, and that all of the other complex machinery in an aircraft is in good working order. They have broad discretion to halt and delay flights—power that often rankles the thinly stretched, financially strapped carriers. When an inspector launches a formal investigation into an apparent safety violation at a passenger airline, something that happened more than 200 times last year, it often triggers costly repairs. And when the bill exceeds $50,000, the FAA must issue a press release alerting the world to the problem.
The airlines sometimes fight back. Executives meet constantly with local FAA officials on a wide variety of issues and occasionally lodge informal complaints against tough inspectors. From time to time, the carriers bring their concerns directly to the agency's top official: the FAA administrator. "If the airline feels uncomfortable, management will call the FAA administrator," says Linda Goodrich, a former inspector who is now vice-president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS) union, which represents inspectors and played no role in Lund's dispute with the agency. "The FAA administrator will immediately demand to know what we are doing to them. You can imagine an inspector trying to do his work when his local management is so fearful of the airline."
Several safety inspectors told BusinessWeek that they had also experienced or witnessed retaliation. (Most of the safety inspectors interviewed by BusinessWeek did not want to be identified by name in this article for that reason.) The House aviation subcommittee is probing an episode in which FAA management allegedly punished an inspector in 2007, according to three sources with knowledge of the subcommittee's probe. Worried that some of the aluminum skins on Southwest's (LUV) older Boeing 737s were prone to cracking, this inspector called for the planes to be rotated out of the fleet until they could all be repaired—a process that would have been time-consuming and costly. He was reassigned though later reinstated in his previous job. A Southwest spokesperson says the airline "is unaware" of the concerns raised by this inspector and "has no knowledge of a probe by the House aviation subcommittee." The FAA declined to comment.
Several safety inspectors interviewed by BusinessWeek said the pressure not to impose big expenses on the carriers increased after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which threw the airline industry into an economic tailspin. They said that this led to a decrease in the reporting of safety violations. In the six-year period following September 11, 2001, the number of so-called enforcement investigation reports (EIRs) filed for the six biggest airlines fell by 62%, to 1,480, compared with the prior six-year period, according to FAA data reviewed by BusinessWeek. The number of domestic passengers grew by about 42% during this same period.
The decline in EIRs "begs for some type of congressional oversight and inquiry," says Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "The numbers, as they stand alone, are alarming."
The FAA argues that there is no cause for concern. The agency notes that the fatal accident rate has steadily declined over the past decade, and it disputes many of the factual allegations and criticisms leveled by Lund, Hall, the IG, and other flight inspectors interviewed by BusinessWeek. The FAA says that all of the safety issues raised by Lund during the Northwest strike were appropriately investigated, and that the public was never in any danger. It adds that airlines have no power to retaliate against inspectors. "The FAA listens to our inspectors and expects them to investigate all potential safety risks," the agency wrote in response to questions posed by BusinessWeek.
Northwest says that it did not retaliate against Lund, that passengers were never in danger during the 2005 strike, and that it performed appropriate maintenance on every flight during that period, including the one with the broken lavatory duct. The company adds that its training program has always exceeded FAA standards. "Northwest's safety record during this period was unblemished," says Roman Blahoski, media relations manager for Northwest Airlines. "It has always been the policy of Northwest to maintain a collaborative and professional relationship with all of the government agencies that oversee us; this includes the FAA."
"I'll Stop the Airplane" There's little doubt that Lund rubs some people the wrong way. He knows the agency's thick rule book almost by heart, and he interprets it strictly. "Mark stands up and speaks the truth," says fellow inspector Mike Gonzales, who works in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Some people, including even his colleagues, don't like him for that." Another colleague called him "dogmatic" and "hard to like." Before joining the FAA in 1990 Lund worked as an aircraft electrician for the U.S. Navy and as maintenance director for a small airline in Minneapolis. He makes no apologies for his sometimes abrasive personality. "I'm here to keep the public safe," says Lund, who is an official in the local PASS union. If a concern arises, "I'll stop the airplane, and I'll watch every step."
Lund worked in Bloomington, Minn., at the FAA office responsible for supervising Northwest Airlines. In FAA-speak, it was a certificate management office. It had about 60 inspectors and was overseen by the FAA's regional headquarters in Chicago. By the time of the 2005 strike, Northwest had already sent a file of complaints about Lund to Chicago "going back many years," according to the IG report.
Lund claims that most of the airline's complaints arose when he delayed planes. In 1993 Lund prevented five
DC-10s from taking off because Northwest had not repaired passenger-seat defects that would cause them to come apart in a crash. "The paperwork had been signed off, but we found that they had not been repaired properly," Lund told BusinessWeek. He claims that Northwest pressured his bosses, who in turn told him to return to the office and assured him that the airline would fix the problem. "I'm sure they took care of it," he said. "But we have no verification."
While inspecting a Northwest 747 in 1994, Lund discovered that when its oxygen masks dropped in an emergency they were dangling two feet above the head of a typical passenger. That made the masks useless. He stopped the airplane until the problem was fixed. "The carrier went ballistic," said a Northwest Airlines FAA inspector with direct knowledge of the matter. Northwest declined to comment on these incidents.
Once the 2005 strike got under way, Lund and his fellow inspectors established 24-hour-a-day surveillance of Northwest's 4,400 replacement mechanics. Inspectors met with their supervisors every day to discuss potential safety issues. But according to Lund, FAA managers ignored inspectors' warnings. Lund came to the conclusion that he had only one option: to file the special safety recommendation report, which is the only method FAA inspectors have to raise safety concerns without having their words potentially edited by supervisors. The FAA says it "thoroughly investigated" Lund's concerns.
On Aug. 21 Lund worked late into the night drafting a nine-page memo that described his observations of 10 separate maintenance mistakes. Besides advocating a cutback in Northwest's flight schedule, he proposed upgrading its mechanic-training program and increasing FAA surveillance of the carrier. The next day, Lund says, his direct supervisor got a call from a higher-level manager ordering Lund to be barred from inspecting Northwest planes. Then the carrier fired off the letter of complaint against Lund, according to the IG report. It said Northwest "would no longer permit [Lund] to have unescorted access to Northwest facilities." In response, the FAA decided to stop him from conducting on-site inspections altogether.
PASS union official Goodrich and a half-dozen safety inspectors interviewed by BusinessWeek said they were aware of similar cases but there were no public records of these incidents because the inspectors in question had not taken the extreme step of complaining to a senator. "Lund was willing to lose his job over principle. He was a serious exception to the rule," says Goodrich.
A comparable case unfolded in 1999 when a safety inspector named Charles Lund (no relation) sent an e-mail to FAA officials and airline executives complaining that the agency was not adequately supervising U.S. carriers flying to Russia. Four months later the FAA demoted him. After an investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an agency that investigates mistreatment complaints by Federal employees, the FAA agreed to rescind the demotion and pay Lund's legal fees. The FAA declined to comment on the episode.
Blowouts on Landing
In Mark Lund's case, Northwest's complaint managed to get him temporarily silenced. But the airline's problems continued to mount. During the first six weeks of the strike inspectors identified at least 121 safety problems stemming from workers' lack of training and inability to "properly complete maintenance functions," according to the IG report.
Although nobody was injured during the strike, at least one of these incidents was quite serious. On Aug. 20, four tires blew out when a Boeing 757 touched ground in Detroit, a potentially life-threatening safety failure. According to Northwest's Blahoski, "there was no prior history of…brake valve issues on this aircraft and the mechanical failure was not a result of any maintenance process or procedure irregularities."
In early September, 2005, the IG's office dispatched a team to investigate Lund's complaints. Its staff determined that other inspectors shared his concerns; they reported that "replacement workers were not receiving proper training and were not properly addressing technical problems as they arose," according to the IG report. The inspectors also said that FAA management discouraged levying fines against Northwest, "thus leading to ineffective oversight of the carrier."
Lund worked in the office for six weeks until the Inspector General's office brokered a deal that allowed him to return to his former duties in early October, 2005. Once reinstated, he got to work investigating the emergency 757 landing in Detroit. Lund uncovered photos and other documents indicating that in Seattle a replacement mechanic had inadvertently jammed a brake cable. This prevented full release of the brake, causing the tires to blow out upon landing, he concluded.
Emboldened, Lund sent off another safety recommendation on Oct. 12, 2005, describing his findings. He repeated the unheeded recommendations of the earlier memo and added a small barb. "Northwest Airlines is an operating air carrier," Lund wrote. "It is not a school to train its mechanics while it operates at a safety risk to the public."
Within a month the strike ended, and life started to return to normal for Northwest. But Lund believes FAA management started to try to fire him. Supervisors started criticizing him for small errors. His directions were suddenly sent to him in writing and he was given strict deadlines for the completion of tasks. Supervisors "singled me out," says Lund. "It created additional stress."
Lund was also given orders he found unpalatable, according to co-workers. Once, a manager forced him to revise a report to edit out a reference to a minor safety problem. "When he refused, they issued a letter of warning and then a letter of reprimand," says one inspector with direct knowledge of the matter. That put Lund on the edge of dismissal. "They didn't want any more problems with the carrier and they didn't want any problems with Mark," this inspector says. The FAA did not comment on accusations that it attempted to dismiss Lund.
Vindication from the IG's office took nearly two years. As the IG recommended, the FAA is creating a new procedure to review concerns raised by inspectors. It will require independent agency staffers—from outside the inspector's direct line of supervision—to investigate disputes between inspectors and airlines. Lund says he now has less conflict with Northwest and FAA supervisors than before. The report "reaffirms to me to keep going, to keep doing what I'm doing," says Lund.