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June 10th, 2009
11:57 AM ET

FAA whistleblower alleges safety concerns were ignored

FAA inspector Christopher Monteleon says the agency put business interests above safety.

FAA inspector Christopher Monteleon says the agency put business interests above safety.

By Laura Dolan and Allan Chernoff

A Senate hearing this afternoon will examine the Federal Aviation Administration and its oversight of air carriers. Some FAA inspectors say the FAA is too "cozy" with the airlines.

We spoke with one inspector who noted problems at regional airline Colgan Air a full year before the tragic crash in February near Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people.

Christopher Monteleon was in charge of overseeing Colgan Air's addition of a new aircraft to its fleet – the Bombardier Dash 8 Q-400 – the same model involved in the Buffalo crash.

Monteleon reported trouble during Colgan Air's testing of the new plane in January 2008.

"I observed from the cockpit operations all day long for the first day, and I observed unsafe practices. And I observed violations of the safety regulations. I observed pilots flying too fast for the design of the aircraft," said Monteleon.

In his report Monteleon noted 'the aircraft exceeded air speed limitation three times" and the pilots failed to note those violations so the plane could be properly inspected.

Excessive speed did not cause the February crash. The NTSB’s preliminary findings pointed to pilot error and mentioned pilot fatigue as a factor. But other problems Monteleon says he spotted at Colgan mirror issues uncovered in the Buffalo crash.

"I observed the pilots being fatigued to the point where their performance was impeded," added Monteleon. He also says there was unnecessary conversation in the cockpit near landing that had nothing to do with flight operations, a violation of "sterile cockpit" rules.

Despite that, Monteleon says his supervisor told him to back off. He was instructed in a memo from an FAA manager, "not to have any contact with Colgan employees regarding Colgan Air business."

"My supervisor called me into his office and said, 'Stop your investigation.' He said that these violations never occurred and that you are to erase the fact that you began the investigation from the FAA database," Monteleon told CNN.

When Monteleon's union filed a grievance, an FAA manager denied the claim, arguing the agency should be assisting Colgan's business plans, an approach that "required management to immediately respond to the operator's scheduling needs." That "operator" – Colgan Air – was about to begin regional service for Continental Airlines using new Q-400 planes.

"I was told by my supervisor in writing that I was relieved in part because the FAA had been concerned about Colgan meeting its schedule. And that's a tragedy in the making. That's putting business interests ahead of safety," said Monteleon.

Monteleon is just one of several people in the aviation industry who tell CNN the FAA needs to beef up enforcement.

Linda Goodrich, regional vice president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union representing FAA inspectors, says, "There continue to be complaints from inspectors trying to do their jobs and they are frustrated with management – local management – who see the certification and relationship with the carrier as much more important than accountability."

"It's up to the management in these offices to balance that and they should be deferring to safety. But inspectors say local FAA management is deferring to the carriers," added Goodrich.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Randy Babbitt, the new administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration plan to hold a summit meeting with the airline industry next week to seek better pilot training and other safety improvements. Babbitt said the Colgan crash made it clear that safety needs to be improved.

Monteleon's career is in limbo. After a year of transfers, Monteleon spoke up at an FAA town hall meeting one month after the Buffalo plane crash. He identified himself as a whistleblower who had disclosed information regarding the airline whose plane was involved in that crash.

His lawyers maintain that that the FAA placed him on administrative leave just 14 days after the town hall meeting. He continues to be off work, though he is still being paid.

Monteleon's attorneys say the FAA used an argument their client had with a staff attorney as an excuse to place him on paid administrative leave.

The FAA told CNN they did investigate Monteleon's claims and found Colgan had not violated safety regulations. But the FAA did make changes in its oversight of Colgan. There is now a new manager in charge of inspections at the airline.

In response to Monteleon's interview, Colgan Air spokesman Joe Williams told CNN, "Mr. Monteleon's claims against us are baseless. We have no control over what the FAA chooses to do and applied no pressure whatsoever to create a situation where he was reassigned. Colgan Air met or exceeded every single FAA requirement necessary to add the Q-400 to its fleet."

The FAA says it does not believe any of Mr. Monteleon's reassignments were retaliatory, and cannot comment further because this is a personnel issue covered by privacy laws.


Filed under: Airline safety
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Gay

    I do not fly regional airlines and rarely fly on national or international flights because I admit to a phobia, so this complicates matters. However, there is never any excuse for cover-ups and retaliation when it comes to public safety. In the aftermath of two crashes of international flights (each one bracketing my own son's overseas flight and back by one day on each end–at each end of the month of June) everyone, phobic or not, should demand that maintenance, training, and all other safety issues be immediately investigated–if necessary by an agency outside the FAA. My anti-fear-of-flying therapist tells me that the statistics are still overwhelmingly in any individual's favor, and I agree, but anyone can see how it feeds my terror of flying to have the "big ones" that so rarely crash start to go down so frequently. Just a thought.

    July 2, 2009 at 10:07 am |
  2. Nancy Christie

    Last fall I flew on United Express/Mesa Airlines en route to Wausa WI. After taking my seat in a bulkhead row, I felt a draft on my feet. Looking down, I saw an opening where the floor met the wall. I could clearly see the ground. I brought it to the flight attendant's attention who then passed it further up the chain. Someone (a pilot or co-pilot?) came to my seat and told me there was nothing to worry about because when the door shut the hole would be covered. He was less reassuring than a little irritated that I would mention this in front of other passengers.
    Once everyone boarded, the door was shut and indeed the hole was covered. Nevertheless, I crossed my fingers and said a prayer. (Fortunately I landed at my destination in one piece.)
    Now I wonder–should I have done more? And when I see something in the future that seems alarming or unsafe, what should I do –especially when in situations like this where the response is less than satisfactory? (Somehow I think a hole in a plane is NOT a good idea.)

    July 2, 2009 at 9:08 am |
  3. George

    I lost my job at the FAA. Because I answered questions from a EPA investigator about the improper removal of asbestos at the WARTCC. It has been 2 years since I was let go. They had samples of the asbestos, they had a survey done by them that said it had asbestos in it and here comes the worst part they did'nt evan care that the handicapped kids that take care of the grounds were exposed to it.
    Once again CNN hit it right on the head. The FAA has a slight problem.

    July 2, 2009 at 7:03 am |
  4. OntheInside

    This issue is with the Flight Standards division of the FAA, and sadly there are corrupt individual inspectors and corrupt mgt, all the way up to the top. The public thinks the whistle blower protection program is a great thing, however, it doesn't work, as Mr. Monteleon is finding out. Dismantling FAA may be a bit extreme. The public needs to know that there are many, many qualified, dedicated inspectors who do their jobs well and help ensure public safety. Because of the dedicated individuals within the FAA and because of airlines and operators who do the right thing, the accident rate is way, way down. All of these people who possess integrity do the right thing in spite of and in full knowledge of the existance of the corrupt good 'ol boys. It is my guess that Mr. Monteleon didn't dream all this up and risk his job, on a pipe dream.

    June 21, 2009 at 11:05 pm |
  5. LeePow

    Sharon, You are an idiot because you can't read your own boarding pass, or the tv screens in the terminal to see what flight you're on and what gate it's at. TSA does their best, but we are all responsible for ourselves in the end. TSA is an agency under DHS, FAA is an agency under DOT–so your comment is on the wrong page dear.

    June 21, 2009 at 10:55 pm |
  6. sharon

    how about walking onto a secured concourse with someome elses boarding pass in jan of this year!!! so much for security, Southwest blamed tsa and they blamed SW- make a kong story short i went onto a secured concourse to board a plane that wasnt mine, restricted area where no other form of id was required to board. Not only my life but the lives of all he other passengers were at rish that day- let us get some simple people who can read id cards and boarding passes. and yes i know mr d there are other measures of security, air marshalls and canine and such, none of which detected anything nor your othr levels of detection,and you consider this a small breech-well see how many americans dont mind the tsa letting people on when they have no idea who they are, no accountability, walk right into a situation to freely board, if i had boarded that plane, i would have perished- and my family would have searched for me forever!!! Post 9/11 this is what we live with- thanks Mr. President for not responding!!! National Security is a joke God forbid i had been a TERRORIST!!!!

    June 17, 2009 at 10:18 pm |
  7. Former Fed

    Mr. Coghlan has it exactly right when talking about the corruption at the FAA management level. I lost my job because of my willingness to put the safety of the public over my career. In the end I lost everything, but I could not live with my self had I done what FAA mangement wanted and just shutup and collect that big check every two weeks.

    The FAA is not worth saving and needs to be dismantled. No FAA is better than what exsist now.

    June 17, 2009 at 5:25 pm |
  8. Carly

    It is scary to imagine what pilots do and do not know and how good they really are. There is a related post at http://iamsoannoyed.com/?p=1781

    June 16, 2009 at 7:57 am |
  9. Milton Smith

    Blow my whistle and I'll blow your's. Catch my drift!

    June 11, 2009 at 7:08 am |
  10. Harold Coghlan

    The main problem with the FAA is the complete lack of standardization. There are 9 Regions, and hundreds of field offices in each Region, and no two offices or two Regions do things alike, whether it is overseeing an airline or certifying an airplane. The second problem has to do with corrupt management, who looks out only for #1 (themselves) and for their continued carreer and future promotions. The FAA management corruption is rampant across the country. In some instances it is a case of the FAA managers being too cozy with an airline or operator, and punishing unfairly an FAA Inspector to keep him or her quiet. Other times, it is the opposite, where a Manager approves an Inspector's abuse of power and punishment of an airline or operator just as a way to take advantage of their incredible power they can wield over aviation companies. Still, it is all about corruption, whether in the silencing of whistleblowers or in the targetting of airlines or operators (or pursuing personal vendettas). Often times, the FAA will go out of their way to protect a larger operator, like a Part 121 airline (such as the case with Colgan here), and at other times the FAA will abuse their enforcement powers and punish (or abolish) smaller air charter companies, who may not have done anything wrong, simply because the Inspectors and managers feel like they can abuse their government position and power of authority. A sad situation either way. Perhaps safety would be better served by cleaning house, closing down the FAA and contracting out their safety functions?

    June 10, 2009 at 5:36 pm |