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FAA faces scrutiny over how it handled concerns about Southwest operations before Flight 1380 tragedy

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator examines damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, which made an emergency landing April 17 at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia. (Associated Press)
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator examines damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, which made an emergency landing April 17 at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia. (Associated Press)
By Aidan Quigley Dallas Morning News

A federal watchdog is investigating the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of Southwest Airlines after a hotline complaint about operational issues at the airline and the engine failure incident on Flight 1380 which led to a passenger’s death.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General issued a memorandum on Wednesday announcing the audit. The DOT received a complaint alleging a number of operational issues at Southwest, including alleged pilot training deficiencies.

The DOT’s audit will focus on the FAA’s oversight of Southwest’s systems for managing risk. The FAA established requirements in March 2015 for the airlines to establish formal safety management systems to identify hazards and take preemptive action to mitigate risk.

The audit will also explore reports that the Flight 1380 engine failure on April 17 was similar to an engine incident on a 2016 flight. The memorandum states that it is unclear what actions the airline took to address the concerns raised by the 2016 incident, in which a flight had to make an emergency landing in Pensacola, Florida., after its left engine failed when a fan blade broke off.

The FAA said in a statement that it continually works to ensure passenger safety and welcomes the investigation.

“The FAA’s oversight system is designed to identify potential risks before they become serious problems and ensure that corrective action is taken,” the FAA said. “The process is dynamic and requires that the FAA, and the airlines we oversee, constantly strive for safety improvements. We welcome any opportunity to improve upon what is already the safest aerospace system in the world.”

Southwest said in a statement that it has a “very transparent and professional relationship” with the FAA, which includes an FAA-approved Safety Management System.

“Our absolute goal at Southwest is to meet or exceed every requirement of our Safety Management System, and we believe we are held accountable to that goal by the FAA,” the airline said. “That said, we are always seeking new ways to strengthen our practices, and any additional enhancements or oversights into our Safety Management System that result from this audit by the Department of Transportation are welcome additions to our safety culture.”

Since 2000, Southwest has been fined a total of $11.6 million from the FAA in 41 reported maintenance violations, according to data compiled by Good Jobs First, a nonprofit focused on corporate responsibility. Fifteen of those fines, totaling $167,000, were against AirTran Airways, which Southwest acquired in 2011.

The FAA fined Southwest $7.5 million in 2009 for flying 46 planes after they were due for mandatory safety inspections. The airline paid $2.8 million in 2017 to settle allegations from 2009 that a third-party contractor had not properly repaired fuselage on 44 aircraft.

The watchdog agency is also auditing the FAA’s oversight of aircraft maintenance programs at American Airlines and Allegiant Air. That audit started as an industry-wide audit in summer 2017 and narrowed its focus to American and Allegiant in May.

The DOT plans on beginning the audit later in June.

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