The immaculate airline may be in for a fall from grace.
For years the darling of aviation, Southwest Airlines suddenly faces a public assault on its safety record from regulators and senior lawmakers.
Separate congressional and Federal Aviation Administration investigations this week detailed what one senior lawmaker called “strong evidence of systemic flaws in the Southwest airworthiness” inspection program.
Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chief executive, said Friday he would vigorously defend his company’s commitment to safety and that the $10.2 million fine levied by the FAA “felt unfair.”
“It is not something that we normally have to do,” Mr. Kelly said of defending the Dallas-based airline from public criticism. “I’m very proud to do it. … The culture here is very strong, and safety is part of our DNA.”
Southwest noted that it blew the whistle on itself when it realized that, over a period of 30 months, it had failed to check 46 jets for fuselage cracks. If the cracks become significant, they can endanger flying ability.
But an investigation overseen by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., detailed Friday, suggested a darker motive – the carrier took advantage of a complacent regulator to keep flying the jets instead of immediately conducting the inspections.
The FAA acknowledged that one of its principal maintenance inspectors permitted Southwest to keep flying Boeing 737s that should have been grounded.
“We have seen the pendulum swing away from vigorous enforcement of compliance toward a carrier-favorable, cozy relationship with the airlines,” Mr. Oberstar said.
Mr. Kelly denied that Southwest’s relationship with FAA inspectors was too cozy, saying safety requires cooperation, trust and openness.
“As long as there is integrity in the record-keeping and there are clear rules and regulations, they shouldn’t leave much room for any shenanigans there. At this point, I don’t have any evidence that that is an issue,” he said.
An airline needs to have confidence that it can disclose its own mistakes without being unduly punished, Mr. Kelly said.
“That’s what the word ‘partnership’ means,” he said. “It doesn’t mean a wink and a nod and avoid problems.”
For Southwest, the path forward includes an internal investigation, another FAA audit of its compliance systems and a possible appeal of a record fine through legal channels.
The carrier’s top executives will testify at an April 3 hearing conducted by Mr. Oberstar, where he plans to introduce front-line FAA inspectors from North Texas who complained about what they called Southwest’s spotty compliance record for more than three years.
Mr. Kelly said Friday the airline was conducting its own investigation to determine the course of events.
“I don’t think we have anything that’s broken,” he said. “But we’re certainly going to use this as an opportunity to review once again and make sure we’ve got the very best maintenance procedures in the world.”
The carrier’s reputation on Capitol Hill is as positive as its relationship with longtime passengers. Two years ago, it out-muscled American Airlines to overturn a 27-year-old law that forbid long flights from Love Field, the carrier’s base.
Southwest’s business at Love Field has boomed since the law’s repeal, accomplished with the help of the North Texas congressional delegation.
The airline argues that its side of the story hasn’t been heard. But allegations that it flouted safety laws may prove difficult to surmount.
“Safety trumps everything,” said one airline consultant who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to give interviews. “But they do have a totally different characterization of what the facts are.”
Mr. Oberstar’s criticism of Southwest could put one of his committee lieutenants in an awkward position. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, chairs the panel’s subcommittee on water resources and environment.
Through its political action committee, Dallas-based Southwest has supported Ms. Johnson’s campaigns, although not as frequently as some of her House colleagues’. Southwest’s PAC hasn’t made a donation to her since Democrats took over Congress in 2007.
Ms. Johnson hasn’t commented during the chairman’s investigation. But she’ll be there when the full committee airs its findings with Mr. Kelly and other Southwest officials.
Mr. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said his committee’s investigation found that 47 jets – the FAA says 46 – were operated without being subjected to fuselage inspections. Seventy jets did not receive rudder-control inspections.
“Those inspections were required in the aftermath of fatalities due to those failures,” Mr. Oberstar said. The veteran lawmaker called it “the most serious lapse in safety I have observed at FAA in 23 years.”
Under FAA regulations, airlines police some aspects of safety themselves, an approach that is supposed to result in more information being shared with regulators. The airlines may be assessed lower fines if they report a violation on their own.
Mr. Oberstar said that approach has created a system with too few inspectors and too many FAA managers who are close to their airline counterparts.
Mr. Kelly said that system is beneficial because it allows airlines to report problems without fearing the regulators.
In Southwest’s case, the airline ran afoul of rules known as airworthiness directives. One directive requires that airlines regularly inspect the exterior of jets that have flown more than 35,000 flights.
The airline also was late in checking the planes’ rudder-control systems under the airline’s own maintenance program, Mr. Oberstar said.
“I fully expect FAA to address those violations in a separate enforcement action,” he said.
In a prepared statement, Southwest denied Mr. Oberstar’s charges over rudders, saying that it had missed only a Boeing-required task on standby rudder power control units, not an FAA-issued airworthiness directive.
Southwest noticed the missed fuselage inspections – which it reported to the FAA – last March during an audit of its compliance with airworthiness directives, FAA officials said. The airline should have then stopped flying the jets until they were properly inspected and any flaws fixed.
A Southwest employee in charge of regulatory compliance documented the failures and noted on a computerized form that the airline was in compliance, according to House committee aides. However, Southwest kept flying 38 of the 46 jets for a total of 1,451 flights, a decision that FAA officials characterized as flunking a basic safety test.
“There is no simpler thing in the aviation industry for people to understand than the requirement for an AD [airworthiness directive],” said Peggy Gilligan, deputy associate administrator for aviation safety.
Jim Ballough, the FAA director of flight standard service, said local FAA officials failed to make sure the planes weren’t flown.
“There should be a verification that takes place, and how that could happen is some probing questions asked by our people,” Mr. Ballough said. “There were a number of ways they could have determined that those aircraft were in fact out of service.”
The committee is continuing to look into why the FAA failed to do that. A committee aide said Friday that a Southwest employee who deals with the FAA on regulatory compliance issues previously worked for the federal agency and was supervised by the FAA’s principal maintenance inspector who oversees Southwest Airlines.
FAA employment rosters confirm that the Southwest employee previously worked in the FAA office.
That FAA official has since been transferred. So was his supervisor, who managed the office that oversaw Southwest’s flight certificate.