FAA’s Oversight of Southwest Airlines Slammed by Watchdog

By Alan Levin | February 12, 2020

The U.S. government’s oversight of airline safety was roundly criticized in a government watchdog report that found Southwest Airlines Co. was allowed to make more than 150,000 flights carrying 17.2 million passengers that didn’t meet safety standards.

The airline regularly used incorrect weight when calculating whether flights were safe for takeoff and operated 88 used planes it had purchased, many from foreign airlines, without ensuring they met American safety standards, the Transportation Department’s Inspector General wrote in the report, released Tuesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it agreed with the report’s findings and vowed to implement all 11 recommendations. The agency, in a response published with the conclusions, said its officials “did not perform in accordance” with procedures.

Southwest repeatedly underestimated the risks of its actions, raising concerns about the company’s culture, the report said.

Southwest said it had remedied problems with weight estimates and data processing identified in the report. It has taken out of service planes identified as being at risk and already performed extensive maintenance on 80 of the 88 used planes.

“We adamantly disagree with unsubstantiated references to Southwest’s safety culture,” the airline said in a statement. The company said it cooperated with the Inspector General’s review.

The report took aim at one of the FAA’s chief methods of improving safety by requiring airlines to impose their own internal oversight systems. It said FAA inspectors don’t evaluate whether carriers have adequately addressed risks in these programs, known as a safety management system.

“As a result, FAA cannot provide assurance that the carrier operates at the highest degree of safety in the public’s interest, as required by law,” the report said.

Similarly, the report, reported earlier by Reuters, raised questions about agency policy in recent years to allow companies to avoid penalties if they voluntarily report safety problems and agree to make improvements.

“Given the significant unresolved safety concerns that FAA has identified at Southwest Airlines, it is clear that the agency is not yet effectively navigating the balance between industry collaboration and managing safety risks at the carrier,” the report said.

The FAA reassigned three managers at the Texas office overseeing Southwest in June, partly as a result of issues raised in the IG’s investigation.

It also proposed a $3.92 million fine against Southwest last month after finding unrelated issues with how the company calculated the weights of 44 aircraft.

The investigation began after a whistle-blower made a report to an IG hotline in early 2018.

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