The chairman of a key U.S. Senate committee is asking the Transportation Department’s Inspector General to investigate misconduct allegations at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Hawaii field office.
Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii are also calling for an investigation.
Transportation Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, says in a letter to the Inspector General that a whistle blower reported allegations to the committee staff.
U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono at the White House in 2015. On Friday they called for an investigation into the FAA related to deadly helicopter crashes.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono
In a letter, Wicker said the allegations include managers directing that investigative reports be altered, and management retaliation against an employee who reported the problems.
Those involve an allegedly close relationship between an FAA manager and a helicopter tour company, identified as Novictor Helicopters by the Senate Transportation Committee, involved in three crashes during the past two years. Three people were killed in one of the crashes in Kailua in April of last year.
According to a fact sheet released by the committee, whistleblower Joseph Monfort, an FAA inspector, said his bosses twice denied him permission to travel to conduct inspections of Safari Aviation, a tour company of Kauai.
On Dec. 26, a Safari helicopter crashed on the rugged north shore, killing seven people.
In 2016, Monfort said he had started a review of Safari’s training program due to deficiencies he noted in a check ride with the pilot involved in the crash, according to the committee report.
Monfort alleges that as a result of his actions, he received two separate suspensions that amount to whistleblower retaliation, according to the committee fact sheet.
Monfort has filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
The committee says in a fact sheet on the case that its own investigation isn’t complete, but it “raises significant concerns about the efficacy of FAA oversight in Hawaii.”
The wreckage of a helicopter lies on the street in Kailua after a crash on April 29.
Schatz and Hirono also called for an investigation into the Federal Aviation Authority based on the conference committee’s report that details how the safety of helicopters in Hawaii was ignored by the agency’s leadership.
“For the past year, we have raised concerns that the FAA has ignored warnings about the safety of aircraft operations. This report exposed troubling new accounts about how the FAA failed to take action on warnings about the safety of helicopters in Hawai‘i –- warnings that could have saved lives,” Schatz, a member of the Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, said in a news release.
“With more than a dozen helicopter accidents in Hawai‘i over the last five years, it is clear that we need answers from the FAA and stronger protections to keep people safe.”
Hirono said in the press release that, “In the past year, Hawai‘i has experienced two tragic accidents involving air tour operators. Safety is a key mission of the FAA, and the whistleblower allegations that the Honolulu Flight Standards District Office knowingly failed to meet this mission deserve immediate action and a thorough investigation.”
In a letter to the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, Schatz and Hirono cite the newly disclosed whistleblower complaints that allege credible concerns about the safety of helicopter tours in Hawaii were ignored by the agency, according to their joint statement.
“We request that you launch an investigation into the specific oversight lapses raised by the whistleblowers as it relates to helicopter operations in the State of Hawai‘i, as well as policies and procedures within the Office of Aviation Safety, the Western-Pacific Region, and the Hawai‘i Flight Standards District Offices that may result in increased risk to operators, passengers, and the general public,” Schatz and Hirono wrote in their letter to the inspector general.
The FAA said Friday that it has been investigating on its own and already is taking steps to address problems that have been substantiated. It pledged to cooperate with the office of Inspector General Calvin Scovel.
The probe isn’t the first time the FAA has been accused of being too cozy with aviation companies that it regulates. Legislators have said the agency gave too much inspection authority to Boeing Co. when it certified the 737 Max passenger jet to be able to fly.
The plane has since been grounded after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed a total of 346 people.
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