WASHINGTON – When federal aviation regulators settled a $7.5 million civil penalty against Southwest Airlines this month, the agency praised the airline’s decision to agree to safety improvements that “exceed FAA regulations.”
Left unsaid: The agreement allowed the airline to settle dozens of enforcement actions that had nothing to do with the carrier missing crucial maintenance inspections, which prompted the penalty.
Under the agreement, announced March 2, the FAA closed out any enforcement investigations that began “on or before Dec. 31, 2008.” That covered 41 cases, including 29 in the Southwest region headquartered in Dallas, according to federal officials.
In one case, the FAA was looking at the carrier not having an FAA-approved low-visibility landing procedure, said one official, who requested anonymity because being identified could place his job at risk.
Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman, said many of the enforcement cases “may have ended up” without the carrier paying a fine. She said the majority of the cases were related to maintenance.
“The improvements made by Southwest addressed the root causes of the majority of those 40 EIRs [enforcement investigative reports], so we decided that it was in the best interest of public safety and made sense to include those cases in the agreement,” Duquette said in an e-mail Wednesday.
However, the FAA moved away from “global settlements” several years ago, after lawmakers criticized them as a tool of administrative convenience. FAA inspectors chafed at the catch-all settlements, saying the airline typically ended up paying a much reduced penalty for safety violations.
In its agreement, the FAA didn’t spell out which cases the settlement closed.
Mike Van de Ven, Southwest’s chief operating officer, said this week that he was unaware of the low-visibility landing case or any other outstanding issues with the FAA.
‘Focus on safety’
When the settlement was announced, the carrier said the settlement “will allow us to focus on safety going forward, rather than on issues that are behind us and that have since been addressed.”
Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., a lawmaker who held a high-profile hearing about Southwest’s maintenance issues and the FAA’s failure last year, said Tuesday that his staff was looking at the details of the settlement.
“We need to see what is in the fine print,” said Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
One airline attorney said omitting mention of which cases were closed was highly unusual for the FAA. He said it may have stemmed from Southwest’s reluctance to settle the enforcement action, which was proposed as $10.2 million in March 2008. Southwest challenged the fine in August.
“Southwest has not settled many of these cases,” said the attorney, who requested anonymity to speak about a competitor without the approval of bosses. “One of the reasons they may have done so is to clean the slate.”
‘Change’ in approach
A union official said the settlement represented a “huge change” to the way the FAA approaches enforcement cases, because Southwest agreed to make 13 changes to its safety programs. These included a rewrite of all of the airline’s FAA-approved manuals and the addition of a “management head of quality assurance.”
The FAA “felt there were some real changes in [Southwest’s] understanding about what they needed to do to enhance their safety culture – and not just the culture but what they are going to be doing differently,” said Linda Goodrich, regional vice president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists. The union represents 11,000 FAA and Department of Defense employees.
“If they were willing to do these extra things, then the FAA could acknowledge, shall we say, a return on investment and they would lower the penalty.”
The penalty stemmed from Southwest’s decision to continue flying 46 Boeing 737 airplanes that were overdue for mandatory inspections for cracks in their fuselage.
The congressional investigation found that a maintenance supervisor in the FAA’s Dallas office permitted the carrier to self-disclose the violation, yet continue flying the planes. The supervisor later retired from the FAA.
The self-disclosure wiped out an investigation being performed by an FAA inspector, who blew the whistle on the deal to Congress. That inspector testified before the House transportation committee with several other FAA whistle-blowers in April.