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.