Transportation Watchdog Says Southwest Airlines Endangered 17.2 Million Passengers

February 12, 2020 Updated: February 13, 2020
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Dallas-based Southwest Airlines put the lives of 17.2 million passengers in danger by flying them on previously owned commercial jets that were not airworthy, according to a new report from the Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General (IG).

In a scathing report aimed primarily at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for failing to oversee the popular airline properly, the DOT IG said Southwest “operates aircraft 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.”

The DOT IG also denounced FAA air safety officials for knowingly allowing Southwest ground personnel to give the airline’s pilots incorrect information about the weight of loaded luggage and its location within their aircraft.

“FAA learned in 2018 that the carrier regularly and frequently communicated incorrect aircraft weight and balance data to its pilots. According to FAA officials, this is a violation of FAA regulations and an important safety issue, as an airplane’s weight and center of gravity can greatly affect its performance and safety,” the DOT IG said in the report. Having accurate information on these factors is especially critical during take-offs and landings.

“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 states.

“Second, FAA inspectors do not evaluate air carrier risk assessments or safety culture as part of their oversight of Southwest Airlines’ SMS [safety management systems]. This is because FAA has not provided inspectors with guidance on how to review risk assessments or evaluate safety culture as part of its oversight of the carrier.”

For those reasons, the DOT IG report concluded, the “FAA cannot provide assurance that the carrier operates at the highest degree of safety in the public’s interest, as required by law.”

The audit that prompted the report was launched in April 2018 after a Southwest Airlines flight “suffered an engine failure that resulted in the first U.S. passenger fatality in over 9 years.”

The Southwest Airlines corporate media relations staff responded to the DOT IG report with a statement that included the following: “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 report.”

Southwest launched its first commercial passenger flight in 1971 as a small regional carrier operating from Love Field, in Dallas, Texas, led by its chief executive officer, Herb Kelleher. Kelleher was viewed throughout the industry at the time as a management rebel and customer-service innovator.

In the decades since, Southwest has become one of the top U.S. commercial passenger carriers, operating flights to 102 domestic cities, with 11 major bases, including Atlanta, Baltimore/Washington International, Chicago’s Midway Airport, Dallas Love Field, Denver, Fort Lauderdale International Airport, Houston’s Hobby Airport, Las Vegas, Oakland, Orlando, and Phoenix.

The most recent Airline Quality Rating report said this of Southwest:

“An on-time arrival percentage of 79.2 percent in 2018 improved from 78.7 percent in 2017. A customer complaint rate of 0.36 per 100,000 passengers in 2018 improved from 0.47 in 2017. An involuntary denied boarding rate of 0.15 per 10,000 passengers in 2018 improved from 0.53 per 10,000 passengers in 2017.

“A mishandled baggage rate of 2.89 per 1,000 passengers in 2018 was slightly worse than their rate of 2.83 per 1,000 passengers for 2017. Overall, Southwest showed improved performance with an AQR score of -0.62 for 2018 compared to -0.73 in 2018.”

Southwest ranked as the third-best U.S. airline for overall performance, according to the AQR, with a score of -0.62. Delta Airlines was first at -0.36, followed in order by Jet Blue (-0.48), Southwest, Alaska Airlines (-0.63), Hawaiian Airlines (-0.65), United Airlines (-0.72), Spirit Airlines (-1.0), American Airlines (-1.10) and Frontier (-1.53).

The DOT IG said Southwest voluntarily disclosed to the FAA in 2018 that it was having problems getting accurate weight data to its pilots, and then agreed with the agency on a corrective course of action.

“While FAA required the carrier to investigate discrepancies of 300 pounds or more to determine the root cause, we found that inspectors did not ensure Southwest Airlines fulfilled its requirements or verify that the carrier took the agreed-upon actions. As a result, these discrepancies have continued for nearly 2 years,” the DOT IG report said.

More than 4,000 errors involving weights of 300 pounds or more were found between March 2018 and July 2019, the report said. The monthly number of reported errors dropped during that period from 350 to 150.

Southwest acquired 88 used aircraft from carriers in five foreign countries, including 23 from China, that were subsequently approved for flight operations by FAA representatives.

The used aircraft did not necessarily meet U.S. standards for airworthiness, but Southwest flew them anyway, “including operating more than 150,000 flights on aircraft that were later determined to have deficiencies that had been missed during the certification process—putting as many as 17.2 million passengers at risk,” the report stated.

The FAA process to certify such aircraft as airworthy normally requires several weeks to complete, but the DOT IG said it found the agency’s representatives certified 71 of the 88 aircraft within just one day because they “used the carrier’s summary documentation to complete their review expeditiously to meet the air carrier’s timelines, rather than performing an independent analysis.”

Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc

Statement from Southwest Airlines added at 10:46 ET on Feb. 13, 2020.