FAA rushed oversight of crashes caused by pilot error and failed to inspect planes purchased overseas for Southwest Airlines

The United States Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has alert the President and Congress that a investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Department of Transportation, disclosed inadequate safety reports of major incidents caused by pilot error, and failed to properly inspect aircraft purchased overseas for Southwest Airlines (Southwest ). The allegations were brought to the OSC by an aviation safety inspector and three other whistleblowers. They alleged that the FAA, under influence from the Southwest, had expedited reporting of dangerous incidents involving pilot error at airports in Bradley, Burbank and Philadelphia.

For example, the FAA determined that pilot error caused an accident in February 2019 involving a flight that suffered damage to both wings while attempting to land at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. Yet the report was closed without further investigation by the FAA’s Occurrence Review Board, despite an ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. The FAA determined that Southwest and union officials resisted its demands for further investigation and pushed for rapid shutdowns contrary to program criteria. Several reports were dispatched in this manner, despite evidence that the events demonstrated “an intentional disregard for safety”.

In response to these findings, the FAA has implemented recommended corrective actions, including robust training for all personnel and the development of regular auditing to ensure compliance with FAA Aviation Safety Program guidelines.

The FAA also backed up the whistleblowers’ allegation that agency officials wrongly allowed Southwest to fly 49 foreign-purchased Skyline planes without verifying that they met FAA standards. Carriers purchasing foreign-registered aircraft for commercial use in the United States must certify to the FAA that the aircraft is airworthy, that maintenance records meet FAA standards, and that all relevant airworthiness directives have been met. Each aircraft must also undergo an inspection by an approved source. Inspectors found that Southwest failed to follow these established procedures with dozens of its Skyline fleet.

In 2019, Southwest had completed full inspections of 39 of aircraft purchased overseas and found that 62% had undocumented, non-compliant or unverified repairs. Nonetheless, 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, the FAA has implemented several corrective actions to better manage and communicate with FAA delegates responsible for inspections.

“I thank whistleblowers for raising these serious allegations regarding FAA surveillance of Southwest Airlines,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said. “I appreciate that the FAA takes these allegations seriously and quickly incorporates recommended actions, including replacing senior management in Southwest Airlines’ Certificate Management Office. I have therefore determined that the agency’s findings appear reasonable.

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