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Southwest planes with safety concerns put 17 million passengers at risk, while FAA monitor knew

Southwest Airlines has flown more than 17 million passengers on jets with safety concerns while the FAA allowed the lapses after the agency agreed with the carrier’s own assessment that problems were ‘low risk’, a federal watchdog said Tuesday.

The airline has flown more than 150,000 flights on 88 jets it bought on the used-plane market and which had unconfirmed maintenance histories, the Transportation Department’s inspector general said in a strongly-worded report. 

That put more than 17 million passengers at risk, according to the report, ‘FAA Has Not Effectively Overseen Southwest Airlines’ Systems for Managing Safety Risks’. 

Southwest Airlines has flown more than 17 million passengers on jets with safety concerns while the FAA allowed the lapses after the agency agreed with the carrier’s own assessment that problems were ‘low risk’, a federal watchdog said Tuesday

A watchdog said oversight of Southwest's safety management system by the Federal Aviation Administration (pictured) was ineffective, resulting in a number of ongoing concerns'

A watchdog said oversight of Southwest’s safety management system by the Federal Aviation Administration (pictured) was ineffective, resulting in a number of ongoing concerns’

The watchdog said the ‘FAA’s oversight of Southwest’s safety management system was ineffective, resulting in a number of ongoing concerns,’ and that the agency relies on the carrier’s own ‘risk assessment indicating this is a low risk rather than requiring the airline to comply with its regulatory requirements.’

A Southwest spokeswoman said the airline reviewed the report, and told DailyMail.com that ‘we adamantly disagree with unsubstantiated references to Southwest’s Safety Culture’.

An FAA spokesperson referred to the agency’s comments within the watchdog report, when DailyMail.com reached out for comment.

The report comes after a hotline complaint about FAA oversight in early 2018 was made to the inspector general, that warned of ‘inaccurate information being provided to pilots prior to flight,’ among other issues. 

Then a Southwest engine failure caused a passenger’s death in April 2018. 

Jennifer Riordan, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, mother of two, was sucked out of a window on the aircraft when the engine failed. The FAA reportedly knew about the defect, which had occurred on a Mississippi flight in 2016.

The report also comes as the FAA is being investigated by Congress for its approval of the Boeing 737 MAX, the plane that was grounded after two crashes killed 346 people. 

The first disaster happened in October 2018 in Indonesia, when a MAX flying as Lion Air flight JT 610 fell into the Java Sea 15 minutes after taking off from Jakarta.

All 189 aboard the plane died, including 180 Indonesians, one Italian and one Indian.

The second crash occurred on March 10 when Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302, which also was a MAX jet, took off from Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital and crashed.

Critics have said the FAA is too cozy with airlines and aircraft manufacturers. 

The inspector general began investigating the FAA's oversight of how Southwest handles risk after an engine explosion caused a passenger's death in April 2018. Jennifer Riordan, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, mother of two was killed in the tragedy

The inspector general began investigating the FAA’s oversight of how Southwest handles risk after an engine explosion caused a passenger’s death in April 2018. Jennifer Riordan, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, mother of two was killed in the tragedy

Damage from a Southwest engine failure that caused the death of Jennifer Riordan, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, mother of two in April 2018

Damage from a Southwest engine failure that caused the death of Jennifer Riordan, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, mother of two in April 2018

NTSB investigators examine damage to a turbofan engine that failed on a Southwest Airlines and caused the death of Jennifer Riordan, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, mother of two in April 2018

NTSB investigators examine damage to a turbofan engine that failed on a Southwest Airlines and caused the death of Jennifer Riordan, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, mother of two in April 2018

The report (pictured) also comes as yet another setback for the FAA, which is being investigated by Congress for its approval of the Boeing 737 MAX, the plane that was grounded after two crashes killed 346 people

The report (pictured) also comes as yet another setback for the FAA, which is being investigated by Congress for its approval of the Boeing 737 MAX, the plane that was grounded after two crashes killed 346 people

The inspector general’s findings reveal that in 2017, FAA inspectors began finding ‘potentially serious gaps’ in Southwest’s process for verifying the condition of the planes, including major repairs that weren’t documented and maintenance records that didn’t meet FAA standards.

Meeting US standards normally takes up to four weeks per plane, but people hired by Southwest approved 71 of the planes on the same day, the inspector general said.

Southwest said 80 of the planes have been inspected and returned to flying, and the last eight are undergoing maintenance.

The FAA gave the airline until this summer to bring the planes in compliance with federal rules because it accepted Southwest’s argument that the issues were low safety risks, the inspector general said. 

The watchdog office added that the FAA has not given its inspectors enough guidance on reviewing risk assessments and evaluating an airline’s safety culture.

‘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 inspector general said. That is so even though ‘FAA representatives – ranging from senior executives to local inspectors – expressed concerns about the safety culture at Southwest Airlines.’

Southwest, while ‘adamantly’ disagreeing with the critique of its safety culture, said it has taken steps to address the report’s key findings.

‘Southwest maintains a culture of compliance, recognizing the safety of our operation as the most important thing we do,’ the airline spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said in a statement. 

The airline works ‘to improve each and every day, any implication that we would tolerate a relaxing of standards is absolutely unfounded.’

Southwest Airlines statement addressing the February 11, 2020 Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General report, ‘FAA Has Not Effectively Overseen Southwest Airlines’ Systems for Managing Safety Risks’

In 2018 the DOT Office of the Inspector General (OIG) initiated an audit of FAA’s safety oversight of Southwest Airlines referencing an unsubstantiated hotline complaint and our 1380 event. 

Southwest fully cooperated with the OIG throughout the process, sharing a common goal of strengthening industry and Southwest Safety practices. 

We’ve had an opportunity to review the report and, among other items noted, we adamantly disagree with unsubstantiated references to Southwest’s Safety Culture. 

Within the Audit, the OIG also takes a closer look at a few operational challenges that we’ve focused on during the last year—specifically our Weight & Balance program and conformity work on pre-owned aircraft. 

The OIG data collection for the audit concluded last fall and since that time, we are proud to say that we’ve made significant progress on these two primary operational items mentioned in the draft audit report. 

We added commodity tracking in all of our domestic Stations by the end of 2019—equipping Employees to further baggage count accuracy and enhance the integrity of our Weight & Balance Program. 

Our Tech Ops Team also has worked diligently to ensure that each of the 88 pre-owned aircraft cited in the report have either completed a comprehensive physical inspection, from nose to tail, or are currently in the inspection phase. Well ahead of the FAA’s original deadline.

The proposed civil penalty referenced by the FAA pertains to data processing issues that occurred while transferring aircraft weight information from one Southwest computer system to other computer systems in the spring of 2018. 

The issues were identified and reported by Southwest to the FAA in late July 2018 and fully resolved in early August 2018. 

Since discovering the data discrepancy in 2018, in coordination with the FAA, Southwest has enhanced its weight and balance program by implementing additional controls to strengthen the process of managing aircraft weight data in our systems. 

We are monitoring the performance of our overall weight and balance program closely to support our unwavering commitment to Safety, compliance, and continuous improvement. 

We continue our work with the FAA to demonstrate the effectiveness of our controls and processes and seek to achieve an effective and appropriate resolution to the proposed penalty.

Southwest maintains a culture of compliance, recognizing the Safety of our operation as the most important thing we do. We are considered one of the world’s most admired companies and uphold an unprecedented safety record. 

Our friends, our families board our aircraft and not a single one of us would put anything above their safety – this mission unites us all. 

The success of our business depends, in and of itself, on the Safety of our operation, and while we work to improve each and every day, any implication that we would tolerate a relaxing of standards is absolutely unfounded. 

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said the report highlighted ‘very concerning lapses in FAA´s safety oversight,’ and that the committee is investigating many of the same issues.

The agency has agreed with all 11 of the inspector general’s recommendations to improve oversight of Southwest, including new training for inspectors who monitor the nation’s fourth-biggest airline.

The review found a number of problems. 

In addition to insufficient maintenance records on used planes, for nearly two years Southwest frequently failed to give pilots correct information about the weight and balance of loads on their planes, which the inspector general called an important safety lapse.

Last month, the FAA proposed a $3.9 million fine for improper weight calculations on more than 21,500 flights. Southwest can fight the penalty.

Southwest has said it has improved its system for calculating weight and balance of cargo.

The report also said FAA did not evaluate Southwest’s risk assessment after a hard landing last year during dangerous gusty winds – higher than Southwest pilots are trained for – at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. 

Both wings of the Boeing 737 were damaged when they hit the runway during the first of three attempted landings before pilots flew to another airport, where they landed safely.

FAA response to the February 11, 2020 Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General report, ‘FAA Has Not Effectively Overseen Southwest Airlines’ Systems for Managing Safety Risks’ 

We agree that the Southwest Airlines (SWA) FAA Certificate Management Office (CMO) did not perform in accordance with existing guidance by allowing 88 aircraft (the ‘Skyline’ aircraft) to enter service through SWA’s conformity process, which lacked a comprehensive conformity inspection for used aircraft. 

Regarding performance weight and balance, we agree the SWA CMO, at times, did not perform in accordance with existing guidance. Once FAA leadership became aware of these issues, the agency took or oversaw various actions described below to address the safety matters articulated in the OIG draft report. 

Leadership & Culture 

Apart from actions aimed at addressing these safety matters in particular, on June 23, 2019, the FAA appointed a new CMO leadership team, to help remedy systemic concerns with the internal and external relationships of the SWA CMO. This team continues to address deficiencies in the work functions and culture inside the SWA CMO by improving communications and building trust. The new leadership team has taken multiple steps to improve the overall office environment. 

SWA Skyline Aircraft 

• In April 2018, the SWA CMO rescinded SWA’s ability to conduct conformity inspections prior to adding any aircraft to revenue service. The SWA CMO now participates in the conformity process for all aircraft.

• In October 2019, SWA assessed all data from earlier repair assessments of the Skyline fleet. The FAA directed SWA to review the service history of the remaining aircraft for evidence of incidents and accidents, tail strikes or hard landings, and repairs to fatigue-critical baseline structure. This review also included the effects of airworthiness directives (AD) or maintenance instructions released after 2018, evaluation of flight operations quality assurance data and digital flight data recorder information that indicated fatigue in primary structural or fatigue-critical areas, and trends related to other aircraft from the same country or region. 

• We continue to monitor SWA’s completion of the Repair Assessment Program (RAP) for the Skyline aircraft. As of January 8, 2020, SWA reported that it had completed the full RAP review on 67 aircraft and evaluated 752 repairs (i.e., 76% of the 88 aircraft complete). 

On 38 of the 67 aircraft reviewed, Southwest reported 125 total findings related to the primary structure, of which 19 were undocumented repairs substantiated via equivalency; 18 were undocumented repairs that did not meet equivalency, and 88 were documented repairs that did not conform. Additionally, Southwest reported 69 findings related to composite structures, which is not considered to be fatigue-critical on these aircraft. 

SWA reports all non-conforming repairs to composite structures have been replaced. SWA reported no overflown follow-up requirements from previous ADs. SWA also reported that all undocumented non-equivalent and non-conforming repairs have been removed and replaced. The Skyline RAP appears to be on track to be completed by the mutually agreed accelerated deadline, with the final aircraft scheduled for RAP induction on the evening of January 31, 2020. 

Any Skyline aircraft not receiving the RAP inspections and repairs by January 31, 2020, will be grounded until the RAP work is completed. 

• The FAA is investigating the performance of the Designated Airworthiness Representatives hired by SWA to do the initial conformity inspections and will address all identified shortcomings. SWA Weight & Balance 

• In July 2018, the FAA’s Alaska Airlines CMO conducted an independent evaluation of the SWA performance weight and balance program, as well as the activities of the SWA CMO. The Alaska Airlines CMO determined that the approach to safety assurance was appropriate and that SWA’s actions improved the performance weight and balance program. 

While weight and balance control is critical for the safety of flight operations, the issues at SWA rarely involved a baggage miscount that significantly affected aircraft loading. 

Nevertheless, these types of errors remain of concern and an area of continued CMO surveillance. The FAA opened a weight and balance enforcement case, but closed it because SWA had reported the underlying violation under the FAA’s Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program. Thereafter, the FAA pursued the matter as a compliance action. 

• Additionally, between September 2019 and October 2019, the SWA CMO completed 202 custom data collection tools on performance weight and balance. This surveillance resulted in a compliance action on October 29, 2019. The FAA continues to monitor SWA’s implementation of corrective measures.

• In addition to the increased surveillance by the SWA CMO, the airline integrated new technology to better manage its baggage count and is working to implement this technology with cargo as well.

• The agency is considering various compliance and enforcement actions to ensure the weight and balance procedures at SWA comply with the applicable regulations. In addition to the open compliance action against SWA for performance weight and balance, the FAA proposed a civil penalty against SWA in an unrelated case on empty operating weight. 

 

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