Southwest Airlines flew more than 17 million passengers on planes with unconfirmed maintenance records over a roughly two year period, according to a draft government report reviewed by the Wall Street Journal.
The Transportation Department’s report followed an 18-month audit and implicates the Federal Aviation Administration for allowing Southwest to “fly aircraft with unresolved safety concerns.”
A Southwest spokeswoman told the Journal the airline has reviewed the draft and strongly disagrees with “unsubstantiated references to Southwest’s Safety Culture.” She added, “Our friends, our families board our aircraft and not a single one of us would put anything above their safety.”
The FAA told the newspaper it would respond directly to the Office of Inspector General.
The report is the latest public embarrassment for the FAA following two high-profile crashes involving Boeing’s 737 Max, which have been grounded. Some have blamed the crashes on inadequate FAA oversight of Boeing.
The Journal reported Thursday that FAA managers were found to have allowed Southwest to “fly aircraft with unresolved safety concerns,” despite red flags raised by dozens of FAA employees who were interviewed for the Transportation Department’s audit.
“It is clear that the Agency is not yet effectively navigating the balance between industry collaboration and managing safety risks at the carrier,” the report said, according to the Journal.
The Transportation Department’s report focused on a 2019 incident in which a Southwest plane attempted three times to land amid gale force winds at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. While no passengers were hurt, the aircraft sustained damage and the interior was splattered with vomit from passengers.
The department’s audit found the FAA’s review of the incident failed to determine whether Southwest’s safety system was effective in “achieving the highest possible degree of safety.”
The audit also found FAA managers allowed Southwest to take the lead in determining potential hazards from the airline’s frequently inaccurate weight monitoring for checked baggage, when federal inspectors should have overseen that evaluation.
Southwest Airlines said it had phased in a new system last year to scan checked bags that offered more accurate weight calculations.
The Transportation Department’s audit concluded FAA oversight of Southwest was “lax, ineffective and inconsistent,” and that its approach helped to “justify continued noncompliance with safety regulations.”