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Why This Popular Airline is Asking For Catastrophe

Southwest Airlines is operating 49 jets that may not have been properly inspected and should be grounded until it can be determined that they meet U.S. airworthiness standards, according to a top official at the Federal Aviation Administration.The aircraft in question are among 88 used jets purchased from foreign carriers by Southwest between 2013 and 2017. The planes underwent special inspections, including reviews of their maintenance records, before being cleared to fly, according to the FAA.

But now the quality of those inspections is being questioned.In a memo sent to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson last month labeled “URGENT: Action Required, Southwest Airlines Airworthiness Concerns,” H. Clayton Foushee, director of the FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation, raised concerns about the contractors Southwest had used to inspect the aircraft, noting that subsequent reviews by FAA inspectors and the airline had turned up hundreds of instances of undocumented repairs that were made on the planes that were not identified in previous reviews.

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In other instances, Foushee noted, at the time airworthiness certificates were issued, Southwest Airlines “admitted they had not even translated all the maintenance records into English, making a complete check of airworthiness impossible.”

Foushee recommended that the agency take immediate action to suspend or revoke the airworthiness certificates of the 49 planes that have yet to be reinspected.

“We conclude there is a high likelihood of a violation of a regulation, order or standard of the FAA related to aviation safety, which requires immediate corrective action,” Foushee wrote. “Additionally, [Southwest Airlines] is unable to certify to the FAA (or the flying public) that the remaining 49 aircraft currently meet FAA airworthiness requirements, and the data collected to date would indicate that the majority of them do not.”

However, the FAA has continued to allow the planes to fly, saying Southwest is taking the agency’s concerns seriously.

A spokeswoman for Southwest maintained that the planes are safe and said the airline has a plan in place for ensuring that all inspections are completed.

“The FAA recently indicated that additional and perhaps expedited review is required,” said spokeswoman Brandy King. “As requested in the FAA letter, Southwest met an FAA two-day deadline to conduct a Safety Risk Analysis on documentation associated with the 41 pre-owned aircraft that have gone through full inspections, in an effort to detect any repair trends. Southwest also complied with a seven-day deadline to perform a Safety Risk Analysis on the 38 aircraft that had yet to be inspected. Southwest voluntarily initiated a General Visual Inspection of these 38 aircraft as part of the Safety Risk Analysis and completed the inspections, satisfying all FAA requests.”

The inspection problems were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The decision to allow the planes to continue to carry passengers has raised concerns among some lawmakers. Aviation safety and FAA oversight have been under increased scrutiny since the deadly crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets. Investigations into the crashes, which killed 346 people, have also highlighted concerns with the aircraft certification process and the FAA’s relationship with manufacturers.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, wrote in a letter to Dickson that he was troubled by reports that aircraft may not meet standards. “This . . . corresponds to concerns that have been brought to my attention by whistleblowers as part of my investigation into aviation safety.”

The latest discovery also comes as the Transportation Department’s inspector general is preparing to release an audit of the FAA’s oversight of Southwest’s safety oversight, prompted in part by concerns raised by an inspector who first identified deficiencies in the earlier inspections by Southwest’s contractor.

In May 2018, that aviation safety inspector was conducting a routine review and discovered discrepancies in maintenance records for several of the Southwest planes. The discovery prompted a full review by the airline.

By November 2018, Southwest grounded nearly 40 of the 88 aircraft, including four that had undergone major repairs, which did not meet FAA requirements.

When the review was completed, the airline discovered that the planes had undergone 360 major repairs that it was unaware of because they were not reported by the contractor that had done the work.

Even so, the FAA allowed Southwest to continue to operate the planes, giving it until July 1, 2020, to complete its review and to ensure that the planes meet federal standards.

But according to a fact sheet released Monday by the Commerce Committee, the FAA inspector who made the original discovery disagreed with the decision and continued to raise concerns with senior FAA officials, to no avail. The inspector then took the concerns to the Transportation Department’s inspector general, which launched an audit of the FAA’s safety oversight of Southwest in June 2018.

On Oct. 4, Southwest provided an update on its progress, as required by its agreement with the FAA. The airline said it had completed full reviews of 39 aircraft; of those, 24 had repairs that did not meet FAA requirements.

On Oct. 24, the DOT inspector general briefed FAA officials on its initial findings. That same day, Foushee sent his urgent memo to Dickson, recommending that the agency suspend or revoke the airworthiness certificates of the 49 jets that Southwest had not yet inspected.

Five days later, John Posey, manager of the Southwest Airlines Certificate Management Office, sent a letter to Southwest Airlines expressing concern about the slow pace of inspections and outlining actions Southwest was expected to take.

“The FAA is concerned that the finding of nonconforming and undocumented repairs in the first 39 airplanes to go through the Skyline Aircraft [Repair Assessment Program] may establish a trend that will be repeated in the remaining 49 Skyline Aircraft to be assessed,” Posey wrote.

He added: “The FAA does not know whether [Southwest Airlines] has developed, and is not satisfied that [Southwest Airlines] has proffered enough information to fully understand the risks presented by the potential for latent undocumented or nonconforming repairs in the remaining 49 aircraft.”

On Monday, an FAA spokesman said that Southwest had fulfilled the actions mentioned in the letter and that the planes could continue to operate. Southwest also announced that it had moved up the timeline for completing the inspections by five months.

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10 comments

  1. Southwest should through the FAA release all of the tail numbers of these aircraft so that the traveling public can make informed decisions as to their personal safety.

  2. Could it be that profits come before passenger safety, or is this simply a “paper work” screw-up, something that should be avoided, but is not of real concern? The government and the airline need to provide answers, answers required sooner rather than later.

    • I will not fly southwest air intil all inspections are complete

    • That has been the case at least since the deregulation the early ’80s, but to an extent even before that among US owned and operated airlines, including with the FAA itself. That agency has a kind of schizophrenic mandate to promote and encourage air travel, and on the other hand, to regulate air travel safety; those frequently come into conflict. So the general rule has been, for as long as I’ve been aware, there will be a significant “body count” before a safety change is mandated for implementation by all US owned and operated airlines. That goes back to at least 1950. Airlines could voluntarily implement new safety procedures or technology as it came available, and many did so as they purchased new aircraft, but not all, and retrofitting already operating planes was very costly, both in terms of the technology or training, or both, and in the down time for each plane to be retrofitted, when it wasn’t earning revenue. In the much tighter and more competitive market of today, that hurts the airlines even more than it did through the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Also, prior to deregulations, the larger lines at least, kept their own maintenance/repair hangars at strategic airports, rather than contracting out repairs and maintenance as most seem to do now, so mechanics had a “loyalty” to the line that seems to be generally absent today, and a pride in work done well, in a timely manner, according to manufacturer’s specs, that also seems to be absent, based on many more recent crash or incident reports. Bottom line, it does seem that safety has been left further behind over the past 4 decades than it was before that.

  3. Alice Cokefair-Davis

    Is this the same FAA that under Obama purged the lists of qualified air traffic controller trainees to re-create a list of racially acceptable un-qualified candidates? Honestly, since the Obama administration I do not trust ANY government agency.

  4. If there is any thinking that these planes are not totally safe without a dought they should all be grounded without a thought about it human life should have a high value but these days it is all about profit how much money the ceo can pocket and it makes no difference if a lot of people loose their lives to keep that money rolling in if an accident would happen to one of those planes that company should be charged with mixer simple as that fix any problems big or small safety first sorry if I typed wrong I have big fingers ang typing on an I phone is hard

  5. I don’t know anything about airliner mechanics, but as an observer, I would think that in light of what is known (or in this case unknown) about these aircraft, any accident involving one of them will result in much greater costs to the airline than temporarily grounding them. I just know that I won’t be flying on Southwest until I read that all of their aircraft have been certified as safe.

  6. I HAVE SOME FLIGHTS COMING UP N THOSE PLANES IF I GET ON 1 OF THEM BETTER NOT HAVE ANYTHING WRONG WITH THEM. MY GOD THEY MUST REALIZE THAT THEY WOULD LOSE MILLIONS IN ALL THE LAWSUITS. THEREFORE, SW BETTER MAKE SURE THAT THOSE 49 PLANES HAVE BEEN FIXED CORRECTLY.

  7. Do we know if any of these planes will be flying between Portland Or and Denver Co in the next two months? I have some reservations and although I have flown a lot on Southwest, this makes me nervous.

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