Thursday, June 21, 2018

Department of Transportation Watchdog Examines Federal Aviation Administration Oversight of Southwest Airlines: Auditors look into allegations of cozy ties between carrier and some government managers

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
June 20, 2018 9:30 p.m. ET

The Transportation Department’s inspector general is examining whether federal aviation inspectors have done enough to ensure safety in policing operations of Southwest Airlines Co.

Scrutiny of the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight office in the Dallas area, responsible for supervising the carrier with the largest number of domestic passengers, was disclosed Wednesday in a one-paragraph statement devoid of details. But the audit was prompted, at least in part, by months of allegations coming from inside the local office that some Federal Aviation Administration supervisors were too cozy with airline managers, according to two people familiar with the details.

Some of the issues auditors are delving into, according to one of these people, include allegations that certain Federal Aviation Administration supervisors have disregarded various inspector complaints and failed to aggressively carry out enforcement actions after they were drafted. At least one inspector has filed a formal whistleblower complaint and alleged that he suffered retaliation from management.

Practices under review in the audit range from changes in the way pilots compute takeoff distances and set flight controls to how the airline runs specific training programs to help pilots deal with stalls, these people said. The complaints filed to the inspector general include alleged violations of Federal Aviation Administration requirements to accurately record the number of bags loaded in the belly of each jet, according to these people, leading to questionable weight and balance calculations.

In its statement, the inspector general said “recent events have raised concerns about FAA’s safety oversight, particularly for Southwest Airlines,” adding that the “objective is to assess FAA’s oversight of Southwest Airlines’ systems for managing risk.”

Hours after the inspector general’s statement, the Federal Aviation Administration released a statement of its own, saying it welcomed the audit, calling it an “opportunity to improve upon what is already the safest aerospace system in the world.” The statement also said the agency’s oversight efforts are “designed to identify potential risks before they become serious problems and ensure that corrective action is taken.”

“We have a very transparent and professional relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration,” Southwest said in response to questions about the audit. “Our absolute goal at Southwest is to meet or exceed every requirement of our Safety Management System, and we believe we are held accountable to that goal by the Federal Aviation Administration.”

In addition to the specific complaints, the inspector general’s staff is expected to assess broader Federal Aviation Administration oversight practices, including the agency’s oft-repeated statement that its updated compliance philosophy aims to work as a partner with airlines to identify and mitigate safety problems—as long as carriers cooperate and don’t repeat the same lapses.

In the past, when Federal Aviation Administration managers looked to their “tool box” of options to reduce risks and secure compliance, “the very first tool we pulled out [was] enforcement,” Ali Bahrami, the agency’s top safety official, told a conference in Washington before the announcement. “Today, that’s not the case.”

The audit is bound to examine how effectively front-line Federal Aviation Administration managers carry out that overarching safety concept, and whether the FAA’s stance has a downside when seeking cooperation pushes traditional enforcement into the background. From Canada to Europe to Asia, regulators are embracing similar cooperative approaches, aided by voluntary reporting of incidents filed by carriers, pilots, mechanics and others.

Allegations regarding training and operational issues, according to the people familiar with the matter, aren’t connected to the high-profile failure and disintegration of an engine on a Southwest flight in April, which killed a passenger. But a June 20 memorandum released by the inspector general’s office said the audit also will examine “what actions the carrier took to manage the risk” following a similar engine failure in 2016. Nobody was hurt in that incident.

In addition, the memo indicates the audit also includes information received from a hotline complaint. Separately, the Department of Transportation watchdog has been given details about close calls over the past few years in which two Southwest aircraft barely managed to get airborne due to significant mistakes in takeoff weights entered into flight computers, according to one knowledgeable person.

This isn’t the first time Southwest and the Federal Aviation Administration have come under criticism for alleged safety shortfalls. In 2008, revelations that Southwest flew many thousands of passengers without completing mandatory structural inspections on more than 40 aircraft prompted a public outcry, sparked congressional hearings and forced the carrier to publicly pledge to avoid such slips. Local FAA managers were faulted for allowing Southwest to avoid doing the work.

—Alison Sider contributed to this article.

Original article can be found here ➤

1 comment:

Jim B said...

Uh, there is quite a legal difference between the word “avoid” and “deferred”.

Let’s see the audit rather than have a journalist inertpret it for us.