Audit Raps Southwest on Plane Safety, FAA for Lax Oversight

(CN) — U.S. regulators put more than 17 million flight passengers at risk by failing to properly monitor Southwest Airlines’ compliance with safety-management programs, a government watchdog group reported Tuesday.

The Department of Transportation’s inspector general opened the investigation following a 2019 engine explosion that resulted in one passenger’s death when she was sucked into the shattered window.

Southwest Airlines planes at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on July 17, 2019. The Transportation Department’s inspector general said in a report Tuesday that Southwest Airlines continues to fly airplanes with safety concerns, putting 17 million passengers at risk, while federal officials do a poor job overseeing the airline. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

This explosion occurred shortly after a tipster called the department’s hotline to voice concerns about the low-cost carrier’s operations, according to the report.

Since the incident, the inspector general found, Southwest has since continued to fly planes with unresolved safety concerns and frequently gives pilots inaccurate aircraft weight and balance data that could potentially jeopardize flight performance, under the lenient eye of the Federal Aviation Authority, which is responsible for enforcing safety compliance.

“Southwest Airlines also 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,” the report states, referring to 88 jets Southwest bought on the used-plane market.

The inspector general report says that those hired by Southwest to approve these planes for flight approved 71 of them in one day. Normally, it takes three to four weeks to ensure a single plane is up to U.S. standards for flight, according to the FAA.

The airline was able to approve most of these planes so rapidly because it accepted Southwest’s labeling of their issues as “low-safety risks,” according to the report, which called the FAA’s oversight “ineffective” and said it has failed to properly train maintenance inspectors.

“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 report says.

Investigators also note that concerns about Southwest Airlines’ operations have been expressed by local inspectors and senior executives at FAA alike.

Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said in a statement Tuesday that “any implication that we would tolerate a relaxing of standards is absolutely unfounded.”

“Southwest maintains a culture of compliance, recognizing the safety of our operation as the most important thing we do,” she said.

The FAA has unanimously agreed to the 11 recommendations the inspector general made in this report to improve oversight. In January, it also submitted a $3.9 million fine to Southwest for giving pilots improper weight calculations — a fine Southwest can object to.

Following the 2018 engine blowout, nine surviving passengers filed suit in Washington, alleging they’d been traumatized.

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