Report: Southwest Airlines continues to fly airplanes with safety concerns

DALLAS -- Southwest Airlines continues to fly airplanes with safety concerns, putting 17.2 million passengers at risk, while federal officials do a poor job overseeing the airline, a government watchdog said Tuesday.

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

The FAA gave the airline more time 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 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 agency said.

The FAA 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 inspector general began investigating FAA's oversight of how Southwest handles risk after an engine explosion caused a passenger's death in April 2018.

The review found a number of problems. In addition to insufficient maintenance records on used planes, Southwest also 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. Southwest has said it has improved its system for calculating weight and balance of cargo.

Southwest Airlines released the following statement:

"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."
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