A government report out late Tuesday blasts the Federal Aviation Administration’s lax oversight of Southwest Airlines, but reserves some of the harshest criticism for the airline.
The 31-page report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, which follows an 18-month audit, said 61% of the 46 FAA officials it interviewed, from senior executives to local inspectors, raised issues about Southwest’s approach to safety.
“Many officials throughout FAA have expressed concern about the safety culture
at Southwest Airlines,” the report says.
During an investigation into whistleblower claims that Southwest mechanics were being pressured not to document aircraft discrepancies, the FAA’s Quality Control and Investigations Branch found that “there is an absence of a ‘Just Safety’ Culture” at Southwest.
The highlighted comments from unidentified FAA employees paint a damning picture of the nation’s largest domestic airline, a darling of travelers and Wall Street:
- “The safety culture at Southwest Airlines consists of using ‘diversion, distraction and power’ to get what the company wants.
- “Regarding Southwest Airlines bypassing the local oversight office by going directly to FAA Headquarters when there is a disagreement, ‘They’ve always done that—just more blatant now.’
- “ ‘Southwest’s management is very skilled in what they have to do. If it costs money, they won’t do it.’
- “ ‘Whatever Southwest puts on paper for us to see never seems to get done the way they wrote it.’
- “ ‘It’s not a positive culture with these issues at Southwest Airlines. Arrogance gets the best of them.’
- “Southwest’s attitude toward FAA appears to take the form of ‘I’ll respond to you when I damn well please.’ ”
Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said in a statement that the airline “adamantly disagrees” with the “unsubstantiated references to Southwest’s safety culture.”
She said Southwest “fully cooperated” with the OIG throughout the audit, “sharing a common goal of strengthening industry and Southwest safety practices.”
“The success of our business depends, in and of itself, on the Safety of our operation,” King added, “and while we work to improve each and every day, any implication that we would tolerate a relaxing of standards is absolutely unfounded. “
The audit of the FAA’s oversight of Southwest began in July 2018 and was sparked by a whistleblower complaint about the FAA’s oversight of Southwest and a “number of” operational issues at the airline, including pilot training deficiencies and inaccurate information being provided to pilots prior to flights departing, and an April 2018 accident that killed a Southwest passenger. King called the whistleblower hotline complaint “unsubstantiated.”
Overall, the report concluded that the FAA has not effectively overseen Southwest Airlines’ systems for managing safety risks.
The FAA shifted to what it calls a more collaborative approach to airline safety management from an enforcement approach in 2015. The FAA has also been criticized for an allegedly cozy relationship with Boeing in the wake of two fatal crashes involving the Boeing 737 Max.
The report identified a number of “concerns and gaps” regarding the FAA’s safety oversight of Southwest and said it has resulted in Southwest continuing to fly aircraft with unresolved safety concerns.
►Incorrect aircraft weight and balance data provided to Southwest pilots, which can
“greatly affect” a plane’s performance and safety. The airline is under separate investigation for that.
Not to be confused with this investigation: FAA proposes $3.92 million fine against Southwest for incorrect weight and balance data.
►Operating planes in an “unknown airworthiness state, including more than 150,000 flights on previously owned aircraft that did not meet U.S. aviation standards, putting 17.2 million passengers at risk.”
“In both cases, the carrier continues operating aircraft without ensuring compliance with regulations because FAA accepted the air carrier’s justification that the issues identified were low safety risks,” the report says.
Ed Coleman, chairman of the safety science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, called the lax oversight in part growing pains from the new safety management system.
“It went from being direct – the FAA telling you what to do – to them giving you an option of telling them how you’re going to apply it,” he said.
Coleman likens it to parents giving children more control when they turn 18. If they offer too much leeway, he notes, the results aren’t always ideal.
“If you let your kids run all over you, they will,” he said. “The FAA’s the mom and dad.”
The report notes that it changed the leadership team at the FAA office overseeing Southwest in June 2019 to “help remedy systemic concerns with the internal and external relationships’’ of employees there.
It concludes, however: “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. Taking immediate actions to address identified safety issues at Southwest Airlines, improve oversight processes and guidance for addressing identified concerns in the future, and reinforce the importance of managing risks will be critical steps to ensure the safety of the traveling public.”
The report identifies 11 steps to improve the oversight of Southwest’s safety management system, including retraining local inspectors; developing a management control system to make sure airlines and inspectors don’t use the collaborative approach as a substitute for regulatory compliance; and providing guidance on how inspectors can evaluate an airline’s safety culture and factor that into oversight decisions.
The FAA agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations and set dates for implementing all of them, beginning in March and running through Sept. 2021.