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FAA investigating Southwest Airlines safety in how it calculates weight

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Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) documents show that Southwest Airlines has made frequent mistakes in calculations and luggage-loading practices that could cause errors when pilots compute their plane’s takeoff weight. The FAA has been investigating how the airlines calculates luggage weight for a year – since February 2018 – and found frequent errors.

In some cases, the investigation revealed the bag load was more than 1,000 pounds heavier than paperwork indicated. According to safety experts, pilots might respond incorrectly to an engine emergency if they had inaccurate information about the distribution of weight between the front and rear cargo bays that could result in a flight control issue.

Southwest flies more passengers within the US than any other airline, and it has been under fire on more than one occasion for safety violations.

In 2009, Southwest paid $7.5 million to settle FAA allegations that 46 aircraft were operated without performing required inspections for possible cracks in the planes’ aluminum skin. In 2018, a passenger died after being sucked halfway out of a window that was broken by a piece of engine. eTN recently discussed the safety of flying a Southwest Airline B737-800 aircraft from North America to Hawaii, an aircraft Boeing designed for short- and medium-haul flights, not for a long-haul route over water.

With regard to the current safety issue brought to light of miscalculated baggage weight, Southwest Airlines said it has made improvements in calculating weight and load balance. The airline said it uses FAA-approved average weights for bags and passengers and adds fuel weight and freight to calculate each flight load. It said ground workers manually count and record the bags that go on each aircraft and then the airline builds in a safety margin on top of all these calculations.

Southwest requested the FAA to close the investigation, but the agency said it will not until they are satisfied that the airline is consistently applying corrections. The agency directed Southwest to develop a comprehensive fix to the methods and processes it uses to determine baggage weight.

Southwest Airlines said it will begin scanning bags on the tarmac this year to improve accuracy, a technology that other large US airlines are already using.

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About the author


Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.