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The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has alerted the President and Congress that an investigation by the Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), revealed inadequate safety reports on major incidents caused by pilot error and failed to properly inspect foreign-purchased aircraft for Southwest Airlines (Southwest). The allegations were brought to OSC by an Aviation Safety Inspector and three other whistleblowers. They alleged that FAA, with influence from Southwest, fast-tracked reports on dangerous incidents involving pilot error at the Bradley, Burbank, and Philadelphia airports.
For example, FAA determined that pilot error caused a February 2019 accident involving a flight that suffered damage to both wings while attempting to land at the Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. Yet, the report was closed without further investigation by FAA's Event Review Committee, despite an ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. FAA determined that Southwest and union officials resisted its requests for additional investigation and pushed for quick closures, contrary to program criteria. Multiple reports were expedited in this fashion, despite evidence that the events demonstrated “an intentional disregard for safety."
In response to these findings, FAA carried out recommended corrective actions including robust training for all personnel and development of a regular audit to ensure compliance with FAA's aviation safety program guidance.
The FAA also substantiated the whistleblowers' allegation that agency officials wrongfully permitted Southwest to fly 49 foreign-purchased Skyline aircraft without verifying that they conformed to FAA standards. Carriers who purchase foreign-registered aircraft for use in U.S. commercial service must certify to the FAA that the aircraft are airworthy, that maintenance records comply with FAA standards, and that all relevant airworthiness directives have been met. Every aircraft must also undergo an inspection by an approved source. The inspectors discovered that Southwest had not followed these established procedures with dozens of their Skyline fleet.
By 2019, Southwest had performed comprehensive inspections of 39 of the foreign-purchased aircraft and found that 62% had undocumented, nonconforming, or unverified repairs. Nevertheless, the agency found that FAA officials declined to take immediate action to ensure the airworthiness of the remaining aircraft, and instead allowed Southwest to perform additional risk assessments to verify their safety. In response to this finding, FAA implemented several corrective actions to better manage and communicate with FAA designees responsible for inspections.
“I thank the whistleblowers for raising these serious allegations about FAA's oversight of Southwest Airlines," said Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner. “I appreciate FAA taking these allegations seriously and incorporating the recommended actions swiftly, including by replacing senior leadership at the Southwest Airlines Certificate Management Office. I have thus determined that the agency's findings appear reasonable."