FAA acknowledges mishandling of Southwest Airlines safety oversight


Following complaints from whistleblowers, the Federal Aviation Administration said it substantiated allegations of “overall mismanagement and lack of oversight” at a responsible security office at Southwest Airlines.

The FAA said there was “interference by FAA senior management” from 2018 to 2020 at an FAA oversight office in Irving, Texas, near the airline’s headquarters.

Citing its in-depth interview review of a related investigation, the FAA said one of the agency’s top security officials passed through Texas for a visit and apologized to Southwest because the local FAA security officials had supposedly been too “too hard” on the airline.

Such comfort from the nation’s top aviation safety regulator has bubbled up elsewhere, the FAA acknowledged. An FAA official said there was a strong friendship between the top Southwest executive and a senior FAA official in Washington, “with almost weekly texts, emails or phone calls” between the men , according to an April report from the FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation released this week.

“This raised questions among inspectors about whether they would be allowed to carry out their oversight responsibilities appropriately,” according to the FAA report, which summarizes the findings of other internal and external reviews, including a 2020 audit report from the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General and a Senate Commerce Committee investigation.

The Senate committee said in late 2020 that the “FAA has repeatedly cleared Southwest Airlines to continue operating dozens of aircraft in unknown airworthiness for several years. These flights put millions of passengers at risk.

The FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation, which provides internal oversight and reports to the agency’s administrator, recommended in April that senior agency officials conduct an “assessment and evaluation of the FAA’s independent climate monitoring 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 impartial third party (without any current or former FAA employees),” according to the recommendation, and should include interviews with all employees in the office dating back to January 2019.

The US Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistleblower complaints, released surveillance documents regarding Southwest this week. He said the FAA confirmed this month that it had “chosen a third-party vendor to initiate the evaluation.”

In a statement, the FAA said it “took seriously the concerns of the Office of Special Counsel and moved quickly to adopt the recommendations resulting from the investigation. The agency continues to work with the appropriate parties to resolve any outstanding issues.

Department of Transportation Assistant General Counsel John E. Putnam said his office would work with senior agency officials, including a new leadership team from the FAA’s Aviation Safety Division, to ensure an adequate response.

Southwest said in a statement that the latest report did not include any new allegations.

“In 2018, and thereafter, Southwest fully cooperated with regulatory and congressional investigations into the years-old allegations that are being re-raised by the Office of Special Counsel. Southwest was then and remains proud of its safety record,” the statement said.

The airline said it “maintains a transparent and professional relationship with the FAA, including several 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 the majority of allegations raised by multiple whistleblowers, including an FAA aviation safety inspector.

“Whistleblowers have alleged that FAA officials, particularly those from the [Southwest Airlines Certificate Management Office]knowingly allowed SWA to engage in unsafe and inappropriate actions that compromised the safety of the flying public, with limited or no repercussions,” Kerner wrote.

The FAA, for example, found that an occurrence review board spanning the airline, which was supposed to improve safety through voluntary disclosures, had “inappropriately accepted reports” of safety incidents in multiple locations. airports, Kerner wrote.

The review committee includes airline representatives, pilots’ union officials, and FAA employees. It decides which incidents to allow under the Voluntary Air Safety Action Program, which aims to collect key safety data rather than sanctioning safety violations.

But the FAA said company and union officials ‘were resistant to FAA demands for further investigation and consistently called for ‘swift closures’ in cases, some of which included ‘evidence that the events showed disregard’. intentional for safety,” according to Kerner.

The FAA cited the case of a runway overrun at an airport in Burbank, California, which was resolved under the Voluntary Safety Program. The National Transportation Safety Board later discovered, through a cockpit voice recording, that the first officer had behaved in a “highly unprofessional” manner, the FAA said.

In its report, the FAA quoted a voluntary safety program official as saying Southwest was “a daunting company to watch out for” and “SWA knows that.” The official said there are “typically 2-3 FAA representatives and 9-10 carrier representatives at each” committee meeting.

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A representative for the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association did not respond to a request for comment.

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