WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal airline safety inspector choked up Thursday as he described what he said were threats made against him and his family when he tried to report Southwest Airlines was flying "unsafe" planes.
FAA inspector Bobby Boutris says his concerns about Southwest Airlines inspections were not heeded.
Douglas Peters, a seven-year veteran of the Federal Aviation Authority, told a congressional committee that his supervisor, during a visit to Peters' home, pointed to a photograph of Peters' family on a shelf, and said: "This is what's important."
Then, his voice halting and shaking, Peters said his boss told him, "You have a good job here and your wife has a good job. ... I'd hate to see you jeopardize yours and her careers trying to take down a couple of losers."
Peters was one of several whistle-blowers testifying Thursday before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is investigating detailed allegations FAA managers turned a blind eye to safety violations by Southwest. Watch a teary Peters describe the encounter »
CNN reported in early March on the whistle-blowers' detailed allegations after obtaining documents submitted to congressional investigators. The documents said Southwest flew more than 100 aircraft on thousands of flights that had not passed mandatory safety inspections.
The day after CNN's report, the FAA began action to seek a $10.2 million civil penalty against Southwest -- the largest against any airline -- for allegedly operating 46 Boeing 737s without conducting mandatory checks for fuselage cracking.
The allegations also prompted an FAA audit of all airlines for safety violations -- an audit that agency officials said Wednesday found "99 percent compliance," although they said the Southwest situation had been a "two-way breakdown" in the system.
FAA associate director for safety Nicholas Sabatini testified Thursday the main manager responsible for the problems had been removed from his position overseeing inspections but was still on the agency's payroll while an investigation was under way.
Democratic Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and Elijah Cummings of Maryland reacted angrily to the news.
"Well, what do you have to do to get fired there?" asked Johnson, prompting laughter from the audience.
"You say the man has rights. Well, the flying public has rights," Cummings said. "Something about this does not smell right."
In another surprise revelation, FAA manager Terry Lambert testified he was ordered to destroy his notes of inspections and conversations about what to do about the serious safety problems after the FAA upper management learned of the congressional investigation.
FAA inspector Bobby Boutris testified in detail that for years and on numerous occasions, his repeated efforts to report the "unsafe conditions" at Southwest Airlines were thwarted, dismissed or blatantly ignored.
"What is also aggravating, and brings this unsafe condition to the highest level of concern, is the fact that at the time of discovery, these aircraft had been flying for 30 months out of compliance with the overdue inspections," he said.
"Southwest Airlines was required by law to immediately remove the affected aircraft from service and comply with the requirements. But Southwest did not take immediate corrective action and kept the affected aircraft flying with paying passengers in a known unsafe condition," he testified. Watch Boutris accuse the airline and his boss of lying »
Boutris said Southwest had also hired a key staff member away from the FAA, putting him in a position to influence FAA inspections and staff.
Boutris accused Southwest of wanting "to cherry-pick" the inspectors who oversaw it, testifying he was removed for a time from his position inspecting the airline after it complained to his supervisors.
Executives for Southwest, who also testified Thursday, told the lawmakers "safety is the top priority" for the airline and for all its employees.
The problems with the planes the whistle-blowers described as "unsafe" were a "record-keeping error," according to Herbert Kelleher, Southwest's chairman, and Gary Kelly, the CEO.
"We do not say these things as an excuse for any compliance irregularity, but wish to dispel any perception that we did not inspect our aircraft," they testified.
The executives said they learned of "the allegations made by the FAA whistle-blowers" from a news conference by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minnesota.
They said the airline performed an immediate investigation and placed on leave "employees involved" and also instituted new measures to strengthen compliance.
Oberstar Thursday praised the whistle-blowers for their "extraordinary courage." He said he was shocked at what had transpired at the airline and at the FAA.
"If this was a grand jury I believe this would result in an indictment," he said. Earlier, Oberstar said the violations constituted "the most serious lapse in safety I have been aware of at the FAA in the past 23 years."
Oberstar and the whistle-blowers charged the FAA, the federal agency tasked with watching over the airlines, has become too cozy with the industry it oversees, putting the interests of the airlines ahead of those of the traveling public. Learn more about safety inspections »
Sabatini defended the agency in his testimony, saying air travel was as safe as it had ever been and said what happened at Southwest was not supposed to happen.
What happened with the safety violations is "truly disturbing," he said.
"It is astounding to me," he said, that an airline like Southwest "would think it could do this" and fly planes without the mandatory safety inspections.
"It is never permissible for any airline to continue to fly" without the inspections, he said, adding "no one has the authority to allow that."
Sabatini said he considered Boutris "a hero."
When asked whether the FAA problem was caused by just one bad individual in the Dallas, Texas, office, where Boutris and Peters were based, Sabatini said he thought it went further than that.
"It was a failure on the part of management in the Southeast region," he said.
But Oberstar noted the inspectors had testified that management in Washington should have also known about the problem.
"The FAA would have us believe this is an isolated incident that has been contained," he said, " ... but testimony shows that it is not. Rather, it has been a systematic breakdown of the safety oversight role."
The behavior of the airline safety watchdog bordered on corruption, he charged. E-mail to a friend
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