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Southwest Airlines Hawaii flights not safe? Did FAA know?


With the arrival of a budget carrier Southwest Airlines in Hawaii, tourism may have changed forever for the Aloha State. With thousands of additional arrivals in Hawaii on a daily basis, airfares dropped, making the destination more affordable for many. At the same time mass tourism in Hawaii created a visible threat of over-tourism for the islands.

Overtourism started a discussion to outlaw AIRBNB to avoid more increases in rent and the homeless emergency in the State.

Many long year residents are leaving the State in response to over-tourism.

On February 7, 2019, eTurboNews asked if it was safe for Southwest Airlines to fly from the US Mainland to Hawaii on a Boeing 737-800 aircraft.

In order to fly long distances over the Pacific,  Southwest Airlines needed to obtain an ETOPS certification on a 2-engine aircraft.

Normally FAA requires at least 1.5 years of trouble-free operation to issue such a certificate. This was waived for the 787 with some near-disasters early on.

A Boeing spokesperson responded to eTN in February 2019: “We are respectfully declining to comment and participate in your story.”

It appears Boeing was spooked after eTN questioned safety when using an aircraft designed for short- and medium-haul flights for a long-haul over-water route. The Boeing 737 was initially known as the “City Jet” for short-haul city-to-city flights.

Keep in mind, Southwest is a profitable company, was the comment by a reader.

Today the question is if  FAA was willing to overlook safety to appease a company’s profits?

New reports of a whistleblower revealing shocking safety violations by the Government agency trusted to maintain safety in aviation.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency. Their basic authorities come from federal statutes: The Civil Service Reform Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Hatch Act, and the Uniformed Services Employment & Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).​

OSC’s primary mission is to safeguard the merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the agency concluded that the FAA likely gave Southwest Airlines preferential treatment in authorizing the airline’s flights from California to Hawaii. Based solely on helping the airline “recover” financially.

The Wall Street Journal article from today alleged, the U.S. air-safety regulators likely acted improperly in the way they authorized Southwest Airlines Co. to begin flights between California and Hawaii last year.

The preliminary conclusion by the Office of Special Counsel pertains to a Federal Aviation Administration employee’s allegations that agency managers gave the carrier preferential treatment by rushing the approval process and cutting corners in other ways.

The counsel’s staff “found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” by FAA employees, according to one document, among several documents and emails between staff and the whistleblower reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The inquiry hasn’t been made public.

The employee, who has been granted formal whistleblower protections, alleged that FAA managers engaged in “gross mismanagement and abuse of authority” for “the financial benefit of the airline,” according to the counsel’s summary.

The claims, alleging the FAA sought to help Southwest reach one of its top growth priorities, aren’t related to ongoing investigations on the B737-MAX.

If the allegations are substantiated, however, they would offer more evidence of FAA lapses regulating the aviation industry’s safety.

The FAA already faces intense scrutiny from lawmakers, travelers, and other critics who contend that FAA ceded too much authority to Boeing in the MAX’s design. The latest allegations, combined with prior FAA failures to hold the carrier fully accountable for safety shortcomings, may result in greater scrutiny of potential operational hazards at various carriers.

The latest FAA probe focuses on how Southwest received permission last February to launch service on those long oceanic routes. Southwest Airlines sees the expansion to the Aloha State as a prime growth market for the carrier.

A Southwest spokeswoman  told the WSJ  the approval “was deliberate and thorough in following all applicable processes.” The carrier complied with standard FAA requirements and met all FAA regulations during a “stringent” process that took some 14 months, she said, without responding to specific allegations.

The whistleblower, according to special counsel documents, alleged that the approval last February of Southwest’s Hawaii plans was part of a wish list prepared by industry “to help the airlines recover financially” from a partial government shutdown in December 2018.

The FAA declined to comment beyond confirming the investigation’s existence.

The effort appears to have paid off. Hawaii service, which began in March, was one of the bright spots in 2019 for Southwest in what was otherwise a challenging year, as the airline grappled with the grounding of the 737 MAX.

A spokesman for the counsel’s office declined to comment.

Before a U.S. airline can operate twin-engine jetliners on extended overwater trips hours away from emergency airports, it is subject to special FAA safety reviews, including various drills on the ground followed by demonstration flights without passengers.

Southwest, which carries the most domestic passengers, flies only Boeing Co.’s twin-engine 737 models.

Three- and four-engine jets aren’t subject to the same rules.

As part of the unusual speed, according to the summary of the allegations, the whistleblower indicated FAA managers brought in employees to observe all six demonstration flights who lacked the necessary 737 pilot licenses and had less specific knowledge about Southwest operations than local FAA employees.

A local inspector, who had the required credentials, was relegated to the cabin during the flights while personnel from FAA headquarters, tasked with accelerating approvals, were assigned to sit in the cockpit, according to the summary.


Recently the  FAA removed three senior managers from the local Southwest oversight office, amid other allegations of lax safety enforcement raised by agency whistleblowers and resulting government inquiries.

Less than two weeks ago, the FAA proposed a $3.9 million penalty against the airline over the electronic transfer of aircraft weight data. Southwest said it would work with the FAA to resolve the issue. The agency also has stepped up compliance reviews of baggage loading.

Tickets for the airline’s first Hawaii flights sold out almost immediately after going on sale two weeks before service began.

Southwest serves Hawaii destinations from Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose with its current fleet of 737s, but eventually plans to use more fuel-efficient 737 MAX jets, after those return to service. This may be controversial on its own.

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About the author

Juergen T Steinmetz

Juergen Thomas Steinmetz has continuously worked in the travel and tourism industry since he was a teenager in Germany (1977).
He founded eTurboNews in 1999 as the first online newsletter for the global travel tourism industry.