Former No. 2 official at Midway Airport accused of violating ‘crucial federal safety protocols’
A high-ranking official at Midway Airport was accused Thursday of ordering a change in reported airfield conditions from wet to dry — without personally observing those conditions — at the request of a “private airline” sources identified as Southwest Airlines.
The explosive allegation is outlined in Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s quarterly report.
As always, the accused city employee — in this case a now-former deputy aviation commissioner at Midway — was not identified. Neither was the airline.
But City Hall sources identified the airline making the request as Southwest and the now-former, $112,332-a-year deputy commissioner as Costas Simos, the No. 2 official at Midway. Simos retired a few months ago before Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee could act on Ferguson’s recommendation that Simos be fired.
Simos could not be reached for comment; a telephone listing in his name has been disconnected.
Southwest, Midway’s flagship carrier, issued a statement denying the allegations.
“The safety of our employees and customers is the uncompromising priority at Southwest Airlines and we would never put that safety at risk,” the statement said. “... Southwest refutes any allegations it attempted to influence or exert any pressure on how airfield conditions were recorded at Midway Airport. Any implication that we would place anything above safety is unfounded.”
Aviation Department spokesman Matt McGrath also said the “safety and security of our airports” is the department’s “highest priority.
“We can confidently say it was not compromised during this specific incident. In order to ensure safety, there are redundancies and multiple inputs built into the system — including airport, air traffic control, and airline personnel — and one person alone cannot dictate that planes land or take off in unsafe conditions,” McGrath wrote in a statement.
“However, CDA still took this issue seriously, and immediately referred it to the OIG’s office when made aware of the allegations. In the meantime, all Midway airfield personnel have been retrained, airfield management responsibilities have been overhauled, and the individual involved has since left the department.”
In the February 2018 incident, the nowformer deputy commissioner was accused of disregarding “crucial federal safety protocols” as well as city personnel rules.
“The deputy commissioner ordered [an] airport operations supervisor under the deputy commissioner’s supervision to change the reported airfield conditions at [Midway] from ‘wet’ to ‘dry,’ despite the fact that assessing and reporting airfield conditions are the [airfield supervisor’s] duties and those reports may only be overridden on the basis of personal observation,” Ferguson wrote.
“In this instance, the deputy commissioner was at home, off-duty and failed to verify the actual airfield conditions personally or otherwise. The investigation established that, prior to ordering the [supervisor] to change the conditions, the deputy commissioner received a call at home from an employee of a private airline requesting that the airfield conditions be changed.”
When interviewed by investigators, the deputy “acknowledged the airline official had a financial motivation for requesting the change in status because the airline could not include as many passengers on planes landing on a wet airfield … as are permitted for dry conditions and the airline would, therefore, lose money if the airfield conditions were not altered.”
But Simos was also accused of lying to the inspector general’s office by falsely claiming to have verified airfield conditions by contacting a different airfield supervisor. Phone records and recorded phone calls at the Department of Aviation revealed no such conversations.
The Federal Aviation Administration conducted a “parallel federal safety investigation arising from the same incident.”
“The FAA is aware of the issue and we are investigating,” FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.
Simos retired after the Department of Aviation received the inspector general’s report. At Ferguson’s request, he was placed on the do-not-rehire list.
Employee warned business of inspection
The Midway episode was the second-most-serious in a quarterly report dominated by a detailed narrative of the alleged police coverup of the drinking-and-driving incident that got Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson fired.
Other interesting tidbits:
♦ A compliance investigator for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection was accused of calling an employee at a Chicago business to give warning about an impending investigation, then ignoring the conflict of interest by participating in the inspection.
The investigator “runs a nonprofit organization that received annual food donations from the business he inspected” and told a colleague to “go easy” on the business because of the donations, the report states. The accused investigator also “gave preferential treatment to another business because he had eaten at their restaurant on multiple occasions.”
At Ferguson’s behest, the inspector was slapped with a 29-day suspension and ordered to undergo one-on-one ethics training.
♦ A deputy aviation commissioner was accused of violating the city’s ethics ordinance by filing a “fraudulent” statement of financial interest that failed to disclose ownership of a consulting company. The deputy deposited $48,000 in a company checking account in 2017 and over $72,000 in 2018, “reflecting payments from approximately five different client firms.” The case was referred to the Board of Ethics, which issued a “probable cause finding” that awaits response from the deputy.
A Southwest Airlines jet at Midway Airport last year.