Southwest Airlines stonewalled FAA safety investigations, whistleblowers say

Federal investigators said Wednesday that Dallas-based Southwest Airlines stonewalled FAA investigations and pushed to close inquiries quickly even though it and union officials resisted handing over information.

The report released Wednesday raises serious concerns about the relationship between the FAA and Southwest Airlines, which has been the subject of past investigations into the purchase of foreign airplanes and drew scrutiny for its involvement in Boeing’s development of the 737 Max aircraft.

The US Office of Special Counsel sent the report to President Joe Biden’s desk Tuesday, the agency said, citing four whistleblowers who say the FAA “knowingly permitted SWA to engage in unsafe and improper actions that compromised the safety of the flying public.”

The report points widespread blame for how the FAA handles complaints and investigations into Southwest, including how mechanics are assigned work and investigations into pilot safety lapses and the relationship between Southwest executives and FAA officials.

The FAA and Southwest Airlines did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Office of Special Counsel report.

In the report, investigators also accuse FAA of failing to oversee Southwest’s “pattern of assigning mechanics more work than can be reasonably completed and then pressuring them to sign off on work that was not completed or completed by someone else.”

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The investigation confirmed that senior leadership at the Federal Aviation Administration “mismanaged and interfered” with the arm overseeing Southwest Airlines between 2018 and 2020 “in the face of SWA’s intimidation tactics.”

The report seems to confirm the results of an investigation into Southwest Airlines released in February 2020 by the US Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General. In that report, one FAA official said “The safety culture at Southwest Airlines consists of using ‘diversion, distraction, and power’ to get what the company wants.”

In the new report made public Wednesday, the Special Counsel’s whistleblowers pointed out “mishandled” FAA responses into a February 2019 accident at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut where a Southwest jet suffered damage to both wings while attempting to land.

In that case, Southwest pilots performed three go-arounds due to wind shear warnings, with one resulting in a wingtip strike before it abandoned the landing and diverted to another airport.

There were also questions about incidents caused by pilot error at Hollywood Burbank Airport in California and at Philadelphia International Airport. After Southwest pilots overran the runway at Hollywood Burbank airport, a review of the cockpit voice recorder “showed that the first officer’s conduct was ‘highly unprofessional.'”

“FAA was complicit in SWA’s ongoing efforts to ‘hide’ serious incidents involving pilot error in FAA’s Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) while allowing pilots to continue flying,” the report said in summarizing complaints from whistleblowers.

The report also questions how the FAA circumvented rules in critical investigations into Southwest over the last few years, including questions about the purchase of 49 Boeing 737 jets from foreign companies over gaps in maintenance documentation. In that case, the FAA was supposed to conduct independent investigations to confirm whether repairs made to the planes were up to US standards but relied on Southwest’s documentation to get it done faster.

Southwest also faced scrutiny from the FAA over how the airline reported the weight and balance of aircraft to federal regulators, relying on estimates for luggage instead of scales. The FAA levied a $ 3.92 million fine against Southwest for the practice, and the carrier agreed to change its practice.

Even after the FAA and Southwest reached a deal to fix the issue in 2019, the FAA’s local office “did not ensure that SWA met these requirements, resulting in more than 4000 errors of over 300 pounds or more between March 2018 and July 2019.” And later, the FAA again relied on Southwest’s documentation for coming up with safety guidelines.

“Recent leadership and staffing changes have not effectively addressed FAA’s overall mismanagement of and lack of oversight” of the FAA Certification Management Office that oversees Southwest in Irving, the report said.

Former Southwest CEO Gary Kelly also traded near weekly texts, phone calls and emails the former deputy / acting FAA administrator that “raised questions among inspectors about whether they would be allowed to perform their oversight responsibilities appropriately,” the Department of Transportation report from April said .

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