Monday, February 18, 2019

Federal Aviation Administration Probes Southwest Airlines Over Baggage Weight Discrepancies: Government’s yearlong safety investigation uncovers problems with weight and balance calculations across Southwest’s fleet

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
February 18th, 2019 9:50 a.m. ET


Federal air-safety regulators are investigating Southwest Airlines Co. for widespread failures to accurately track the combined weight of checked bags loaded into each of its jets, according to government officials and internal agency documents.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s yearlong civil probe, the documents show, found systemic and significant mistakes with employee calculations and luggage-loading practices, resulting in potential discrepancies when pilots compute takeoff weights. The inaccuracies ranged from a few dozen pounds to more than 1,000 pounds in excess of what the paperwork indicated, sparking disputes between the company and some agency inspectors about potential safety consequences.

In an email to The Wall Street Journal last week, an FAA spokesman confirmed the investigation and said the agency has ordered “a comprehensive solution to the methods and processes used” by the airline. “The FAA will not close its investigation until it is satisfied that Southwest’s corrective actions are consistent and sustained,” the spokesman’s email added.

The agency hasn’t decided whether to impose fines or any other punishment, according to people familiar with the investigation, which hasn’t been reported before.

In email responses to questions from the Journal, a Southwest spokesman said it has cooperated fully with the FAA and voluntarily reports issues to enhance safety. He called the company’s dealings with the agency part of a “routine dialogue.” Stressing that the agency hasn’t imposed fines or taken any other formal enforcement action, the spokesman said the exchanges with the FAA “do not constitute findings of noncompliance.” The airline said it plans to phase in new baggage-counting procedures by year’s end.

Unlike other large U.S. airlines, Southwest doesn’t rely on computerized scanners to ensure accurate counts as bags are piled into the bellies of aircraft. Instead, the carrier has the ground crew count bags. Regardless of the way bags are counted, airlines use average bag weights to calculate the overall weight of checked luggage. In the course of the inquiry, Southwest told the FAA its system carries “less than minor risk” for passengers, according to documents.

But some FAA inspectors expressed concerns that in extreme circumstances, such as an engine failure at takeoff, a plane could experience handling difficulties. Pilots set takeoff speed and thrust depending on total aircraft weight and how it is distributed, including passengers, fuel and contents of cargo holds.

There haven’t been any Southwest accidents linked to suspect weights, and the probe—described by the FAA in documents as a high-priority “enforcement investigation”—is continuing.

Dozens of investigative updates and other FAA documents reviewed by the Journal lay out a pattern of failures to comply with agency requirements that pilots have verified, up-to-date total aircraft weights before takeoff. The files also include extensive correspondence—stretching back to January 2018—between agency managers and Southwest officials about various views on the safety implications.

Southwest over the past year has implemented procedural changes and internal reporting safeguards, repeatedly telling the FAA in documents that nagging problems with manual bag counts and weight calculations fall well within operating safety margins of its fleet of Boeing Co. 737s. Distracted baggage handlers and last-minute bags are a major cause of loading discrepancies, according to Southwest.

Amid lingering FAA concerns, Southwest is embracing technology. By year’s end, the spokesman said, the carrier plans to institute computerized scanning of all individual bags on the tarmac, just before they are loaded into the cargo holds of its more than 700 Boeing 737 jets.

In a Jan. 11 letter, Jeff Hamlett, Southwest’s senior director of regulatory compliance, told a high-ranking FAA inspector that scanners are slated to be phased in first in Seattle, San Diego and Sacramento. After that, his letter said, the carrier “will review the test results and evaluate a phased roll out” nationwide.

In the same letter to the local FAA manager, Southwest, which carries more domestic passengers than any other carrier, asked for the investigation to be closed without further FAA action, citing “our efforts and responsiveness to your office.”

Some FAA officials have estimated in interviews that during certain periods, at least one-third of Southwest’s roughly 4,000 daily flights could have operated with inaccurate weight data, a figure Southwest doesn’t agree with. The Southwest spokesman said there is no current information to support the estimate, “especially given the controls and adjustments that we’ve implemented.”

It is unusual for this type of FAA investigation to last for so long without at least some interim enforcement action, according to government and industry officials. The agency and Southwest also have unusually divergent views on what prompted the probe in the first place, according to these officials.

In the documents, agency inspectors wrote that the investigation was partly sparked by separate allegations lodged by a whistleblower and received on an agency “hotline” for safety complaints. By contrast, the Southwest spokesman said the probe was prompted entirely by voluntary reports from the airline and its employees.

In early 2018, when the investigation was launched, the FAA told the carrier “there have been numerous reports of ground operations personnel and/or flight operations personnel not following Southwest Airlines procedures for entering correct and complete weight information” before takeoff. One early document called it a “high-risk concern.”

The inaccuracies prompted swift FAA responses, and were considered serious enough to require Southwest to physically audit the number of bags unloaded daily from 25% of its flights. That sample was later reduced, at Southwest’s request, to 15%. The airline continues to provide daily status reports to the agency.

In rare cases, FAA documents referred to flights with cargo loading discrepancies totaling more than a ton. Southwest said it can’t comment on weight issues with any particular flight because of confidentiality requirements covering voluntary incident reports.

In some documents, Southwest said an error resulting in a 1,500-pound lower-than-actual takeoff weight should be considered within safety limits. In other documents, the airline said anything up to a 10,000-pound mistake would amount to a minor risk. Several current and former Boeing 737 captains said they would consider the larger weight discrepancy dangerous to rely on for takeoff calculations. Southwest has said all of its planes are typically designed to take off at weights in excess of 150,000 pounds.

The investigation is complicated by the fact that the Dallas-area FAA office that oversees Southwest faces separate scrutiny by the Transportation Department’s inspector general. That audit focuses on allegations local office managers have been too compliant with Southwest requests, affecting a host of issues beyond weight calculations. In the past the FAA has said it welcomed the audit, calling it an “opportunity to improve upon what is already the safest aerospace system in the world” and adding that the audit is “designed to identify potential risks before they become serious problems.”

Original article can be found here ➤ https://www.wsj.com

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Having dealt with regulators in a different industry, this whole thing stinks of either
a) a regulatory vendetta,
b) a power complex in the bureaucracy,
c) regulatory capture by a competitor, or d) union muck-racking.

Since they do not actually roll the aircraft over real scales after the cabin door is shut, the whole damn thing is estimated. The people, the carry on bags, the checked bags, the moisture buildup on the surface, everything.

The best they can do is guess ("estimate" = statistician/engineer speak for guess, an informed one, but a guess all the same) and then rely on some acceptable tolerance band and operate within that tolerance. The article says "over 1000 pounds". What is that: 1005 pounds, 4000 pounds, 20000 pounds? I would guess is more like the first number. I'm neither a aerospace engineer nor an aircraft manufacturer, but I would be willing to bet that 1005 pounds is well within any reasonable tolerance range.

Tom Ibach said...

the FAA has a boner for Southwest it appears..there is a lot of "fat" built into average baggage weights, and while they make it sound catastrophic, a 737 wouldn't even feel 1 ton, I flew the Airbus 320 which is almost identical in weights and trust me, 1 ton over isn't an issue

Anonymous said...

Isn't the FAA supposed to be figuring out how to get trains to Hawaii and Europe?

Anonymous said...

Real shocker, not. WN is a corner cutting airline; their MX issues speak volumes. They have been doing in for years now and it’s catching up.

Anonymous said...

In the United States the average weight of an adult male is 172 pounds with a standard deviation of 29 pounds.

Let's take a Boeing 737, Southwest's bread and butter. It holds about 145 people, including the pilots.

So sqrt(145*29^2) = 349. Even if they knew each bag weight down to the ounce, there'd still be a standard deviation of 349 pounds on each flight due to passengers. That means 32% of the time the weight of the flight would be > +-349 from whatever they guessed.

And this doesn't include the unweighted carry-on.

The assertions that miscalculating the net weight of the checked luggage by a few hundred pounds is critical and dangerous is, in light of other unweighted cargo, ludicrous.

Assuredly, this probe was triggered by either the unions, disgruntled employees, or competitors.