First, Southwest Airlines grounded dozens of 737s because of missed safety inspections. Then last week, American Airlines and Delta had to cancel hundreds of flights after concerns about the airplanes' wiring. Wednesday, it was United's turn — the carrier grounded 31 Boeing 777s for maintenance checks.
And that's no coincidence. It's the fallout from two Federal Aviation Administration whistleblowers who accuse the agency of becoming way too cozy with the airlines it oversees.
The whistleblowers are scheduled to testify before Congress on Thursday, but before their date with lawmakers, FAA inspectors Bobby Boutris and Douglas Peters told their story to NPR.
In 2003, Boutris was in charge of reviewing the engine maintenance for 737s in his region. He says that when he looked at Southwest Airlines' paperwork, it was so inconsistent and incomplete that he couldn't tell what was going on with the engines.
"I had found a lot of inconsistencies with the records," Boutris says. "They were different from aircraft to aircraft; it was very hard to determine compliance."
He complained to his supervisor but was largely ignored. The situation came to a head in 2006, when Boutris was named program manager for the Boeing 737-700 series. He says he was responsible for the safety of the entire aircraft and that Southwest's record-keeping had not improved. He again went to his supervisor and explained that he was seeing the same problems. Boutris wanted to send a letter of investigation, but the supervisor refused.
An FAA letter of investigation is a serious matter for an airline. And in Boutris' particular circumstances, according to FAA rules, he was required to investigate further.
Boutris says he was blocked yet again by the supervisor, Douglas Gawadzinski, and thinks he knows why. He says Gawadzinski was friends with a man named Paul Comeau, a former FAA inspector who had accepted a position with Southwest Airlines as the manager for regulatory compliance.
"Anything that had to do with aircraft maintenance, it was dealt between Mr. Gawadzinski and Mr. Comeau. They had a very close relationship," Boutris says.
Neither Gawadzinski nor Comeau responded to NPR requests for comment.
With a former FAA insider heading up their compliance team, Boutris says, Southwest grew complacent and arrogant. But Boutris says he refused to back off and the carrier tried to get him removed.
"It was obvious that Southwest Airlines was trying to cherry-pick the inspector for the inspection," he says. "And because of my knowledge, they didn't want me to perform this inspection, they wanted somebody else."
At first, Gawadzinski refused to remove Boutris. But it wasn't long before the supervisory maintenance inspector told Boutris he was out and that his career was in jeopardy because there had been undisclosed complaints from anonymous Southwest officials.
This is where the second FAA whistleblower, Peters, became involved.
Peters was asked to review Boutris' Southwest investigation. The more he looked into the matter, the more he agreed with Boutris that the flying public was in danger. Peters says the situation defied logic. "That something so critical ... would be not addressed ... I can't explain it. It's a mystery."
Peters says Southwest also began trying to interfere with his investigation by going behind his back to FAA supervisor Gawadzinski. The situation for Southwest, however, was about to change.
In March 2007, the airline reported to the FAA that it had not done the required fuselage inspections on 47 jets. The checks are crucial because some versions of the Boeing 737 are vulnerable to cracks just above and below the windows. In 1988, an Aloha Airlines 737 decompressed and blew out 18 feet of its roof, killing a flight attendant. Instead of grounding the 47 aircraft and inspecting them, Southwest quietly continued to fly the jets. Gawadzinski, who was aware of Southwest's alleged deception, is accused of helping the airline cover it up.
Peters says the problem at the FAA involves more than one rogue supervisor. He says higher-ups in the agency have known for three years that there were serious problems with aircraft maintenance inspections and have done nothing.
The FAA has tried to do some damage control.
The agency has transferred supervisor Gawadzinski and fined Southwest $10.2 million. Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell said at a news conference at Washington's Reagan National Airport on Wednesday that there was a breakdown in the system at Southwest.
"For those who question our commitment to safety, I would suggest there's at least one airline today with 10.2 million reasons why those critics are simply wrong," Sturgell said.
Southwest initially balked at the fine but then backed off as the extent of the public relations mess became apparent. Ginger Hardage, senior vice president for communications, says the company is investigating the missed maintenance.
Southwest declined to comment about any of the details regarding its past interaction with the FAA.
It does not promise to be a pleasant day for Southwest executives or the FAA officials appearing before the House Transportation Committee and its Chairman Jim Oberstar on Thursday.
The FAA's announcement that four more airlines are now under investigation for failing to comply with federal maintenance regulation seems only to underscore Boutris' contention that other FAA investigators have been stymied by their supervisors.
Congress' reaction will determine a lot about future aircraft safety, Boutris says. "The flying public needs to know that we need their support. This way, we can do what we were hired for."