According to government documents, the FAA recently considers grounding 38 Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 -700/-800s; after the airline failed to provide documentation confirming that the planes met safety standards, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Congressional investigators, and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general’s office, are stepping up scrutiny of issues involving the operation of used aircraft that Southwest introduced into its fleet, according to the documents and people familiar with the details. In letters to the Federal Aviation Administration, over the past two weeks, the carrier indicated it previously found dozens of problematic repairs on other planes, done before it bought those aircraft; the problems included substandard or improper fixes.
Those findings, combined with the inadequate documentation, has raised concerns among regulators. Although the airline believed it had backup its records, it later identified that it was missing numerous important documents and that some paperwork was incomplete. The carrier told the FAA that it had 50 employees to evaluate the 63,000 repair documents in 15 languages, the Journal said.
Southwest acquired 88 used Boeing 737 NG planes between 2013 and 2017, which are used planes previously flown by carriers in countries including Canada, China, Russia, Argentina and Turkey; of those 88, 41 have been fully inspected to verify the paperwork and another 9 are undergoing inspections.
The lack of complete documentation, for the remaining 38 foreign aircraft, has attracted the attention of FAA inspectors and the DOT inspector general’s staff. A veteran maintenance inspector first expressed concerns in 2018; the issue resurfaced this summer as local FAA managers heard more complaints from inspectors about lack of maintenance paperwork, according to people briefed on the discussions.
The FAA in late October threatened to ground 38 of Southwest’s Boeing 737’s still waiting for comprehensive inspections, citing potential risks “posed by undocumented or nonconforming repairs” according to a letter to Southwest from the agency that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Dated Oct 29th and signed by John Posey, manager of the FAA’s Dallas office overseeing Southwest, the letter said that if the agency’s concerns weren’t adequately addressed “the FAA may exercise remedies up to and including grounding.”
On Nov 21st 2018, after audits of some of the planes’ maintenance records raised concerns, the FAA briefly grounded 32 of Southwest’s planes until certain inspections were carried out, the documents show.
In responding to the FAA’s October letter, Shawn Jensen, Southwest’s director of regulatory compliance, indicated that the airline considers the issue a paperwork problem rather than a safety risk. Southwest, he wrote, is taking steps “to reduce the risk of regulatory noncompliance, rather than an elevated safety risk.”
A small number of repairs on a few aircraft had been performed but not properly classified by the previous owners because of differences in language and repair criteria.Southwest Spokeswoman
The agency agreed to let the planes continue flying following discussions with Southwest officials, conditional upon the airline accelerating required inspections to bring their paperwork into compliance by January. The previous deadline was July.
An FAA spokesman said that the agency validated certain major repairs and is now requiring more frequent updates on the progress of inspections on the used planes. In an email sent to some congressional committees at the end of October, the FAA said Southwest “is taking our concerns seriously.”
As questions arose about safety-related maintenance and paperwork, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee, wrote to FAA chief Steve Dickson late last month “If the FAA cannot conclude with absolute certainty that the aircraft are airworthy, they should not be in the skies.”
In June, the FAA removed three senior managers in the local office overseeing Southwest; following months of escalating concern by inspectors, congressional staffers and others over allegations of lax safety enforcement. In addition to examining the maintenance of the 38 planes, the Transportation Department’s inspector general has been investigating Southwest for failures to reliably compute the weight of checked baggage and a number of other operational incidents over the past year.
The current questions raised by lawmakers mirror difficulties faced a decade ago by Southwest, its leaders and the FAA, in another high-profile controversy over maintenance compliance. In 2009 Southwest agreed to pay $7.5 million in penalties, to settle allegations that it operated 46 aircraft on 60,000 flights without completing mandatory maintenance checks for potential fuselage cracks.
Congressional hearings, and the public outcry surrounding disclosure of those lapses, sparked a wide-ranging debate over whether the FAA had an improperly cosy relationship with the airlines it oversaw, particularly Southwest. According to testimony on Capitol Hill, at the time by the FAA and Southwest employees, local FAA officials had allowed Southwest to keep the planes in service despite knowing certain mandatory safety checks hadn’t been performed.