For more than a decade, Northwest Airlines repeatedly failed to follow federal safety orders but wasn't held accountable by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a government report.
The report by the Transportation Department's inspector general's office confirmed many of the accusations brought by a Twin Cities-based whistleblower both in 2005 and in 2008, who alleged a cozy relationship between FAA managers and the airlines they are charged with inspecting.
FAA inspector Mark Lund charged that managers at the safety office that oversees Northwest routinely allowed the airline to avoid penalties or fines by voluntarily disclosing failures.
Lund, who still works as an FAA inspector in Bloomington, could not be reached for comment, but federal documents indicate his concerns remain.
Lund first raised concerns about FAA oversight of Northwest's compliance with safety directives in August 2005. That was soon after the airline's mechanics went on strike, hoping to ground the airline.
Lund wrote a memo to FAA management sharply criticizing the maintenance work of some replacement employees and management mechanics.
His concerns included maintenance errors that were eventually caught and addressed, inadequate training for replacement workers, and poor documentation of aircraft repairs. Lund's memo concluded the situation at Northwest "jeopardizes life or property."
In 2008, Lund reiterated his complaints about the FAA's oversight of Northwest.
The FAA initiated a national review of safety order compliance at major airlines in 2008, and found 14 instances in a four-month period in which Northwest didn't comply with safety orders -- one of the highest of all the airlines reviewed, the Inspector General's report said.
The failure to comply with FAA safety orders continued even after the FAA's review, the report said, citing eight more instances in which Northwest didn't carry out safety orders in the budget year ending on Sept. 30 2009. The FAA office overseeing the airline closed five of those cases without recommending penalties or fines.
In one of those cases, Northwest had to ground 27 planes because it hadn't inspected landing gear parts as required by a safety order. The inspections were intended to prevent the main landing gear from separating from the wing and possibly rupturing a fuel tank, the report said.
Given that the problems continued, "the status of Northwest's compliance with more than 1,000 [safety orders] is unknown," the IG report said.
The IG report is dated Dec. 7, 2009. It was not released until this week by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which handles federal whistle-blower complaints and reviewed the IG's findings.
Northwest merged with Delta Air Lines last year, creating the world's largest airline.
"We are currently reviewing the documents and, as always, we will fully cooperate with the government agencies to ensure our core values of safety, quality and compliance are not compromised," Delta spokesman Anthony Black said.
The special counsel's office, which is required to report its findings to the president, said in a letter to the White House on Thursday that most of Lund's allegations have largely been substantiated.
Lund has told the special counsel that despite the Northwest-Delta merger, FAA managers are still not backing up inspectors who try to cite the airline for safely problems.
The letter to the president quoted Lund as saying that an inspector "has to typically fight through the FAA management chain" to do his duties, and that the FAA's "culture of placing the interests of the carrier over safety continues to pose a risk to the flying public."
The DOT Inspector General said the FAA should conduct another major inspection of Northwest's operations, independent of Delta, and review a sample of past safety orders involving Northwest to better assess its compliance record.
Margaret Gilligan, FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, said in a December memo, also made public Thursday, that the agency was working to implement the recommendations.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency takes whistleblower complaints very seriously.
"We have gone above and beyond the DOT Inspector General's recommendations in making sure similar problems do not exist at Delta after the airline's merger with Northwest," she said. "A team of FAA inspectors not associated with Northwest operations did a comprehensive review of Delta's systems for dealing with Northwest 'legacy' operations earlier this year. We believe that system is sound, but we continue to monitor the carrier's performance in this area."
Linda Goodrich, vice president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents FAA inspectors, said she is "appalled that an inspector has to go through this much of an extraordinary effort to raise serious safety concerns on behalf of the flying public."
Lund has "taken a lot of abuse" since he first issued his allegations, she said.
Lund was an active member of a union, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, known as PASS. And there were suggestions he was sympathetic to the striking mechanics and that was reflected in work.
Northwest alleged that Lund acted unprofessionally and intimidated Northwest's replacement workforce. Lund was reassigned to a desk job after Northwest complained about him.
But Lund's union said other FAA inspectors assigned to Northwest saw the same maintenance shortfalls at Northwest that prompted Lund to write a safety memorandum just three days into the strike.
The FAA, however, at the time said none of the other 80 or so FAA full-time inspectors assigned to Northwest had contacted agency management to express concerns similar to those expressed by Lund. The FAA said Northwest's operations were safe. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said at the time that Lund's allegations weren't cause for alarm.
"Based on our investigation and the ongoing surveillance we have going on at Northwest, Northwest met safety standards," Isham Cory said in 2005.
Cory said Northwest did revise its training for replacement workers after the FAA questioned the effectiveness of the training.
The FAA apparently took enforcement actions in response to at least one of Lund's concerns. But Cory said it had more to do with administration than maintenance.
The matter involved a Northwest manager's decision to revert to a previous procedure for handling certain parts. Cory says the older procedure was FAA approved.
Northwest insisted at the time that it was operating safely and meeting safety standards.
In April 2008, the U.S. House Transportation Committee heard from a number of FAA whistleblowers who came forward to discuss lax FAA oversight of airline safety procedures. They said they stemmed from the FAA's "Customer Service Initiative," which aimed to have the FAA treat airlines as customers.
In 2008, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., introduced legislation that would prohibit the FAA from treating anyone but the traveling public as customers. The legislation also required FAA maintenance supervisors to be rotated from one airline to another, with the aim of ensuring they do not form close relationships with any one carrier. The bill passed the House. But it didn't get out of the Senate.
However, key provisions of Oberstar's proposal are included in the FAA Reauthorization Act, which has passed both the House and the Senate and is now in a conference committee.