Reprinted from The New York Times
By Matthew L. Wald
WASHINGTON — More than a year before a twin-engine turboprop flown by Colgan Air crashed on approach to Buffalo, a Federal Aviation Administration inspector complained to his superiors about the rocky start the airline was having with that model.
The inspector, Christopher J. Monteleon, was in the cockpit when the airline got its first such plane, a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, and put it through a series of test flights.
Three times, he said, the pilots flew the airplane faster than the manufacturer’s specifications allowed, but they initially refused to report this and have the plane inspected for damage. They flew with a broken radio and did not want to write that up in the maintenance log, as the rules require, he said, because it might delay the next test flight. And they tried three approaches to the airport in Charleston, W. Va., and “botched” all of them, failing to get the plane at an appropriate altitude, on the right path and at the right speed for landing.
“They got confused,” Mr. Monteleon said in a recent interview, as he recalled the test flights in January 2008.
But when he reported problems to his F.A.A. superiors, he was suspended from important portions of his job overseeing Colgan’s acquisition of the Dash 8 and given a desk job, he said. Mr. Monteleon has had other run-ins with his bosses, and is currently on paid leave because, he said, managers accused him of menacing an agency lawyer.
Mr. Monteleon’s complaints about Colgan, which he repeated three months later to the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency established to hear whistle-blower complaints, foreshadowed some of the issues that emerged 13 months later at the National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the crash near Buffalo, on Feb. 12, 2009. Colgan crews were flying fatigued, Mr. Monteleon said, and were not fully focused on the tasks in front of them, two factors apparently in play in the Buffalo crash. All 49 people on board the flight, which took off from Newark, were killed, along with one man on the ground.
While the safety board usually takes about a year to issue a final report on crashes like the one in Buffalo, its hearings in early May made it clear that the quality of the F.A.A.’s regulation of Colgan was one of the areas under investigation.
The F.A.A. insists that it took Mr. Monteleon seriously in the months before the crash.
A spokeswoman for the F.A.A., Laura J. Brown, said that after Mr. Monteleon made his allegations, the agency called in a team made up of inspectors from around the country, who could review the issues with an impartial eye. They recommended some changes in F.A.A. procedures, she said, which were carried out, but did not find any “major regulatory issues.”
Mr. Monteleon was not punished, she said, and privacy laws limited what she could say about “personnel issues.”
A spokesman for Colgan, Joe F. Williams, said, “Mr. Monteleon’s claims against us are baseless.”
“Colgan met or exceeded every single F.A.A. requirement necessary to add the Q400 to its fleet prior to beginning operations,” he said.
The Office of Special Counsel does not settle safety issues but sends them on to the inspector general of the department in question if it finds a “substantial likelihood” that that they are at least partly accurate. The office did send Mr. Monteleon’s complaint to the inspector general of the Transportation Department, the parent agency of the F.A.A., but the inspector general’s office has not completed its investigation.
The claims by Mr. Monteleon, 64, a 40-year veteran of the aviation industry who joined the F.A.A. in 1997, rely mostly on documents he himself wrote when the events occurred, and on his memory. Thus they are difficult for outsiders to evaluate. But they echo a previous case of inspectors who were penalized by their supervisors who overruled them in favor of the airline.
In 2008, two F.A.A. inspectors assigned to Southwest Airlines testified before Congress that their managers had let Southwest fly its Boeing 737s without inspections for cracks that the safety agency required. Office managers referred to the airline as the regulatory agency’s “customer.” Top F.A.A. officials eventually conceded that the inspectors were right and the middle managers were wrong.
Mr. Monteleon said his supervisors were too “cozy” with Colgan, and eager to help it keep its schedule; the airline had a contract with Continental Airlines to begin flights in the Dash 8 plane — flying as Continental Express — in a little over a month after it acquired its first plane of that type.
In one memo retained by Mr. Monteleon, his manager indicates that he was reassigned because of his “conduct during a work-related duty” and because “the matter also required management to immediately respond to the operator’s scheduling needs.” The operator was Colgan.
Mr. Monteleon’s lawyer, Debra S. Katz, said the most recent charge against Mr. Monteleon, of menacing an F.A.A. lawyer, was trumped up as a way to get rid of him. “The F.A.A. seems bent on pushing Chris out in retaliation for his disclosures,” she said. She said she hoped the Office of Special Counsel would order his re-instatement.
His complaints — and his troubles — did not begin with Colgan’s handling of the Dash 8. Earlier, he had a bigger job supervising Colgan, as the principal operations inspector. But, he said, after he observed violations and deficiencies in crew training, crew fatigue and other problems, he tried to bring a case against the airline and was blocked by his F.A.A. managers. As punishment, he said, he was demoted. He then agreed to be transferred to the Office of Runway Safety, which was in charge of collecting and analyzing data about incidents in which planes came too close to each other on the ground.
When he got there, he complained that the office was using skewed methodology to understate the severity of safety concerns. He said a top F.A.A. safety official testified before Congress in April 2008, and said that the agency was making progress on improving runway safety, but, Mr. Monteleon said, the testimony was based on inaccurate statistics.
This has not been verified, either, but a 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office does note that the F.A.A. found problems itself with its 2006 runway incursion data.