Citing its review of extensive interviews from a related investigation, the FAA said one of the agency’s top safety officials came through Texas for a visit and apologized to Southwest because local FAA safety officials had supposedly been too “heavy-handed” with the airline.
Such coziness by the nation’s top aviation safety regulator bubbled up elsewhere, the FAA acknowledged. An FAA manager said there was a strong friendship between Southwest’s top executive and a senior FAA official in Washington, “with near weekly texts, emails or phone calls” between the men, according to an April report by the FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation released this week.
“This raised questions among inspectors about whether they would be allowed to perform their oversight responsibilities appropriately,” according to the FAA report, which summarizes findings from other internal and external reviews, including a 2020 audit report by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General and an investigation by the Senate Commerce Committee.
The Senate committee said at the end of 2020 that the “FAA repeatedly permitted Southwest Airlines to continue operating dozens of aircraft in an unknown airworthiness condition for several years. These flights put millions of passengers at risk. “
The FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation, which conducts internal oversight and reports to the agency’s administrator, recommended in April that top agency officials conduct an independent “climate assessment and evaluation” of the FAA’s oversight office for the airline, known as the Southwest Airlines Certificate Management Office.
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The review should “be conducted by an independent and unbiased third party (with no current or prior FAA employees),” according to the recommendation, and should include interviews with all office employees dating to January 2019.
The US Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistleblower complaints, released oversight documents concerning Southwest this week. It said the FAA confirmed this month that it had “chosen a third-party provider to initiate the assessment.”
In a statement, the FAA said it “took the Office of Special Counsel’s concerns seriously and acted quickly to adopt the recommendations that resulted from the investigation. The agency continues to work with the appropriate parties to resolve any outstanding issues. “
The Transportation Department’s deputy general counsel, John E. Putnam, said his office would work with top agency officials, including a new executive leadership team in the FAA’s Aviation Safety division, to ensure an adequate response.
Southwest said in a statement that the latest report does not include new allegations.
“In 2018, and thereafter, Southwest cooperated fully with regulatory and congressional inquiries into the years-old allegations now being raised again by the Office of Special Counsel. Southwest was then and remains proud of its Safety record, ”according to the statement.
The airline said it has “maintained a transparent and professional relationship with the FAA, including multiple FAA-approved Safety programs designed to help us manage and mitigate operational risks and execute safe operating practices,” adding that: “This matter is now closed.”
In a July 26 letter, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said the FAA had substantiated a majority of the allegations raised by several whistleblowers, including an FAA aviation safety inspector.
“The whistleblowers alleged that FAA officials, particularly those in the [Southwest Airlines Certificate Management Office]knowingly permitted SWA to engage in unsafe and improper actions that compromised the safety of the flying public, with limited or no repercussions, ”Kerner wrote.
The FAA, for example, found that an Event Review Committee covering the airline, which was meant to improve safety through voluntary disclosures, had “inappropriately accepted reports” on safety incidents at several airports, Kerner wrote.
The review committee includes representatives from the airline, pilot union officials and FAA employees. It decides which incidents to allow into the voluntary Aviation Safety Action Program, which seeks to gather key safety data rather than pursue punishment for safety violations.
But the FAA said company and union officials “were resistant to FAA’s requests for additional investigation and consistently pushed for” quick closures in the cases, some of which included “evidence that the events demonstrated an intentional disregard for safety,” according to Kerner.
The FAA cited the case of a runway overrun at an airport in Burbank, Calif., Which was resolved as part of the voluntary safety program. The National Transportation Safety Board later found, through a cockpit voice recording, that the first officer had behaved in a “highly unprofessional” manner, the FAA said.
In its report, the FAA cited a manager in the voluntary safety program who said Southwest was “an intimidating company to oversee” and “SWA knows it.” The manager said there are “usually 2-3 FAA representatives and 9-10 representatives from the carrier at every” committee meeting.
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A representative of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association did not respond to a request for comment.