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Southwest Airlines’ commitment to safety reportedly questioned in government audit

The FAA is also allegedly being criticized for its oversight of the airline

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), along with Southwest Airlines, is coming in for some Department of Transportation (DOT) criticism for how it handled safety, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal says it has reviewed a draft of the report scheduled to be released in early February. The draft report allegedly claims that the airline failed to prioritize safety and that the FAA failed to hold it accountable.

According to the draft, Southwest transported passengers on jets with unconfirmed maintenance records during a two year period. As an example, the report documents an incident in which a Southwest jet smashed the tips of both wings while repeatedly trying to land during gale force winds.

The Journal claims the report also calls the FAA’s oversight of the airline “lax, ineffective and inconsistent.” The report suggests Southwest was never subject to FAA enforcement actions in relation to safety issues, and it goes so far as to suggest the FAA’s stance toward Southwest served to “justify continued noncompliance with safety regulations.”

The Inspector General’s investigation reportedly found that the FAA allowed Southwest “to fly aircraft with unresolved safety concerns.” Further, the audit found that a majority of the FAA employees it interviewed about the matter “raised concerns about the culture at Southwest.”

Engine explosion

U.S.-based airlines have been remarkably safe during the last 20 years, largely due to better training, better equipment, and enhanced safety policies. 

Fatal accidents have been rare, but one of the most recent involved Southwest. The accident occurred when an engine exploded and pieces of metal broke a window. The passenger sitting next to the window was killed when the depressurization of the cabin sucked her halfway out of the aircraft.

The resulting investigation focused on the engine’s metal fatigue, and Southwest announced an acceleration of its program to inspect CFM56-7B engines used on its Boeing 737 aircraft.

The Journal report says that an 18-month government investigation concluded that the FAA management in the Dallas office, where Southwest is based, allowed the airline to fly planes “with unresolved safety concerns.”

Government officials have declined to comment, but Southwest, which has reportedly reviewed the draft, took issue with its findings. A spokeswoman told The Journal that the company strongly disagrees with “unsubstantiated references to Southwest’s safety culture.”

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