Southwest Airlines is flying 49 aircraft despite concerns that they do not comply with mandatory federal safety standards, according to documents released by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
At issue are 88 Southwest Airlines Boeing 737s previously operated by 16 different foreign air carriers between 2013 and 2017. None of the aircraft are the 737 Max model, which has been grounded by the FAA after two fatal crashes.
Southwest buys the majority of its fleet new, but a spokeswoman acknowledged that the airline occasionally buys pre-owned aircraft.
The airline hired contractors to review the maintenance records of the jets before approving the airplanes for flight via an authority granted by the FAA.
But in May 2018, an FAA aviation safety inspector discovered discrepancies in the records of the 88 airplanes, prompting a review in which Southwest Airlines found 360 major repairs that they had not known about. The airline did a full inspection of 39 of the 88 aircraft; 49 have yet to be evaluated.
In some cases, the contractor issued airworthiness certificates without even translating maintenance records into English.
Southwest characterized the issue as one where it and the FAA found “a small number of repairs on a few of these aircraft” that had been performed but not properly classified by previous owners because of differences in language and repair criteria.
The airline said it conducted a “thorough audit” of the aircrafts’ maintenance records. They have also conducted visual inspections and plan to do complete “nose to tail” inspections of all aircraft by Jan. 31, 2020.
But those assurances did not assuage House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., who wrote FAA Administrator Stephen M. Dickson late last month to question whether the aircraft were “airworthy.”
He said he was troubled by reports that 39 of the 88 aircraft required “significant maintenance.”
“But more troubling is the fact that here are 49 further airplanes in the group acquired by Southwest that, to my knowledge, have not yet been inspected from nose to tail,” he wrote. “Based on the alarming findings of the inspections to date, I am skeptical that each of the 49 uninspected aircraft is in airworthy condition.”
His concerns come on the heels of lengthy and intense congressional scrutiny of Boeing, which produced the Boeing 737 Max — an aircraft that saw two fatal crashes over the last year. In that case, lawmakers expressed concern that the FAA ceded too much power to Boeing to certify its own aircraft.
In his Oct. 29 letter, DeFazio made it clear he is concerned about FAA oversight in this case as well.
“The bottom line is that, if the FAA cannot conclude with absolute certainty that the aircraft are airworthy, they should not be in the skies,” he wrote.
He expressed frustration with the FAA, saying it has not yet supplied documents requested related to his investigation into aviation safety.
Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said the audit of maintenance records “did not stem from any suspected safety conditions with the aircraft.”
“As outlined, the FAA recently asked us for a report on an existing maintenance effort underway to reconcile and validate records and previous repairs,” she said. “And we answered that request.”
Concerns about the Southwest aircraft were reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.
After discovering the discrepancies in May 2018, the FAA safety inspector reported his concerns about the aircraft bought from overseas to both the FAA Southwest Airlines Certificate Management Office and to senior FAA officials to no avail before raising the issue with the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, who investigated the matter and briefed FAA management on Oct. 24.
So concerning were the FAA’s findings that that same day, Clay Foushee, the director of the FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation, sent a memo to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson urging “immediate corrective action.”
That memo said that Southwest “continues to operate many of these aircraft without verifying that they currently meet airworthiness requirements and that FAA issued airworthiness certificates without proper documentation or a qualifying exemption.”
That memo found that Southwest provided “little to no oversight” of the contractor they’d hired to complete inspections and accepted at face value the contractor’s assurances that the aircraft were in compliance.
It also found that of the 39 aircraft inspected, 24 had “significant airworthiness issues,” including previously unknown and undocumented repair and 42 documented repairs that did not meet FAA requirements.
The memo recommended that the remaining uninspected 49 aircraft be grounded pending a reinspection.
The FAA sent a letter Oct. 29 to Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Michael G. Van de Ven expressing concerns about the slow progress of inspections of the 49 remaining aircraft.
In that letter, John Posey, the manager of the agency’s Southwest Airlines Certificate Management Office, said that if the 49 aircraft weren’t promptly inspected and the FAA’s concerns weren’t addressed, the agency “may exercise remedies up to and including grounding the aircraft.”
The company responded two days later by asserting the remaining aircraft presented a “low risk” and also sped up its timeline for inspecting the aircraft.
In a statement, the FAA said its Seattle certification office “has taken appropriate measures to reduce the risk of regulatory noncompliance” and will require more frequent updates on the progress of completing the requirements and “take additional action as necessary.”