February 11, 2020
FAA Has Not Effectively Overseen Southwest Airlines’ Systems for Managing Safety Risks
What We Looked At
On March 9, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) established requirements for air carriers to implement a formal, top down approach to identifying and managing safety risks, known as safety management systems (SMS). However, recent events have raised concerns about FAA’s safety oversight, particularly for Southwest Airlines, one of the largest passenger air carriers in the United States. In early 2018, our office received a hotline complaint regarding FAA’s oversight of Southwest Airlines and a number of operational issues at the carrier. Then, in April 2018, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 suffered an engine failure that resulted in the first U.S. passenger fatality in over 9 years. We initiated an audit to assess FAA’s oversight of Southwest Airlines’ systems for managing risk.
What We Found
Our review identified a number of concerns regarding FAA’s safety oversight of Southwest Airlines. First, Southwest Airlines continues to fly aircraft with unresolved safety concerns. For example, FAA learned in 2018 that the carrier regularly and frequently communicated incorrect aircraft weight and balance data to its pilots—a violation of FAA regulations and an important safety issue. Southwest Airlines also operates aircraft in an unknown airworthiness state, including more than 150,000 flights on previously owned aircraft that did not meet U.S. aviation standards—putting 17.2 million passengers at risk. In both cases, the carrier continues operating aircraft without ensuring compliance with regulations because FAA accepted the air carrier’s justification that the issues identified were low safety risks. Second, FAA inspectors do not evaluate air carrier risk assessments or safety culture as part of their oversight of Southwest Airlines’ SMS. This is because FAA has not provided inspectors with guidance on how to review risk assessments or how to evaluate and oversee a carrier’s safety culture. As a result, FAA cannot provide assurance that the carrier operates at the highest degree of safety in the public’s interest, as required by law.
FAA concurred with all 11 of our recommendations to improve its oversight of Southwest Airlines’ systems for managing risk and provided appropriate planned actions and completion dates.