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DOT Says FAA Allowed Southwest To Endanger Passengers

A Southwest 737-800 takes off in Los Angeles. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

A report released Feb. 11 by the inspector general at the Department of Transportation says Dallas-based Southwest Airlines put millions of passengers at risk by flying aircraft that did not adhere to basic U.S. safety standards.

The 27-page report published Tuesday details how the airline operated “more than 150,000 flights on previously owned aircraft that did not meet U.S. aviation standards,” a fact that supposedly put 17.2 million passengers at risk over the course of that same period.

That information comes in addition to the revelation that the airline would regularly communicate incorrect weight and balance data to pilots, an error which, if especially egregious, could potentially lead to catastrophe.

Potentially even more serious, however, was the report’s finding that the Federal Aviation Administration failed to properly check the airline and fix its safety procedures at any point during the process.

The DOT provided the FAA with 11 recommendations, some specific to Southwest and others meant to ensure better oversight going forward. The DOT gave the FAA its initial report and recommendations in December 2019, and the regulating body agreed with and accepted all of those guidances.

Those range from ensuring Southwest complies with weight and balance- and previously-owned aircraft-related regulations going forward to retraining managers and inspectors to better manage the regulating body’s relationship with and management of Southwest.

In response to the report, Southwest said the airline “maintains a culture of compliance, recognizing the Safety of our operation as the most important thing we do.”

“We are considered one of the world’s most admired companies and uphold an unprecedented safety record,” the airline said in a statement. “The success of our business depends, in and of itself, on the Safety of our operation, and while we work to get better each and every day, any implication that we would tolerate a relaxing of standards is unfounded.”

The report stemmed from a complaint received via a hotline at the DOT inspector general’s office in early 2018 that alleged “a number of operational issues at [Southwest], such as alleged pilot training deficiencies and inaccurate information being provided to pilots prior to flight” in addition to various issues regarding the FAA’s oversight of the airline.

The tip came just a few months before the Southwest flight 1380 incident in April 2018, an uncontained engine failure that saw the first passenger fatality in the U.S. in over nine years. According to the report, those events in tandem spurred the investigation, with the objective to “assess [the] FAA’s oversight of Southwest Airlines’ systems for managing risk.”

The airline said the complaint was “unsubstantiated” and added that the airline “fully cooperated with the OIG throughout the process, sharing a common goal of strengthening industry and Southwest Safety practices.”

While the report paints a somewhat startling picture of the safety culture at Southwest, it serves as yet another example of how the FAA hasn’t met certain standards in recent years. The regulator has already come under increased scrutiny for its role in the Boeing 737 MAX crisis, where many believe steps the FAA took to let Boeing manage the MAX’s certification process led the manufacturer to cut corners to get the aircraft labeled as airworthy.

Somewhat similar to the Southwest case, the FAA largely left it up to Boeing to self-regulate, not intervening in the case where Boeing clearly had a lot to gain from getting its new aircraft in the hands of customers as soon as possible. In that case, over 300 died, arguably as a result of the FAA’s negligence.

As a result of that — still ongoing — debacle, the FAA is already on somewhat thin ice in the eyes of much of the engaged public. It, along with Boeing, are already going comparatively overboard to ensure the 737 MAX is vigorously tested before final certification, both to ensure its safety and to preserve the optics of the situation.

The FAA is desperately looking to avoid any issues going forward. But the only question is, even if it can avoid any slip-ups, will the regulator be able to gain the gravitas it once held as a proper regulator for one of the most turbulent industries in the country.

This story was updated Feb 14. at 11:30 p.m. with a statement from Southwest Airlines.

Parker Davis


  • Parker Davis

    Parker joined AirlineGeeks as a writer and photographer in 2016, combining his longtime love for aviation with a newfound passion for journalism. Since then, he’s worked as a Senior Writer before becoming Editor-in-Chief of the site in 2020. Originally from Dallas and an American frequent flyer, he left behind the city’s rich aviation history to attend college in North Carolina, where he’s studying economics.

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