A Senate Commerce Committee report accuses the FAA of lax oversight of Southwest Airlines and having an overly cozy relationship with the carrier.
The report, issued by the Republican-led Senate committee on Dec. 18, also offers withering criticism of the FAA's oversight of the helicopter tour operator industry in Hawaii, where crashes resulted in 21 deaths in 2019.
The report also took aim at Boeing and said the FAA may have obstructed a review of the two deadly crashes of the 737 Max.
The report's findings about Southwest were related to 88 Boeing 737 aircraft that the carrier acquired used from 16 different foreign airlines between 2013 and 2017.
Southwest, acting under authority granted by the FAA, certified the planes as airworthy after having them inspected by a contractor. However, in May 2018 an FAA inspector found discrepancies in the records of some of those planes, prompting a full records review by Southwest.
The review resulted in Southwest finding 360 major repairs to the aircraft that it had not known about. Though some planes were grounded that November for immediate service, the FAA allowed Southwest to operate the aircraft in question as they assessed the previous repairs, initially with a target completion date of July 1.
"As a result, Southwest Airlines appears to have operated aircraft in unknown airworthiness conditions for thousands of flights," a Senate Commerce Committee fact sheet says.
The FAA's management of the situation alarmed the inspector who originally discovered the inspection shortcomings of the aircraft. After unsuccessfully taking his worries to senior FAA management, the inspector went to the DOT's Office of the Inspector General.
As of early October 2019, Southwest had fully reviewed just 39 of the 88 used aircraft in question, according the Senate committee, and 24 of those were found to have undocumented repairs that were nonconforming to compliance requirements.
On Oct. 29 of that year, a director of the FAA's Office of Audit and Evaluation directly appealed to FAA administrator Steve Dickson to immediately suspend or revoke the airworthiness permits of the remaining 49 aircraft.
Dickson didn't take such action, though Southwest ultimately agreed to accelerate the remaining inspections by five months.
"The FAA repeatedly permitted Southwest Airlines to continue operating dozens of aircraft in an unknown airworthiness condition for several years. These flights put millions of passengers at potential risk," the Commerce Committee report says.
The committee also accused Southwest of exerting improper influence on the FAA. Whistleblowers within the FAA, the reports says, have outlined persistent safety concerns related to oversight of Southwest by the FAA, including ongoing concerns about takeoff weight and balance requirement compliance at the carrier.
In a statement Monday, Southwest said that it recognizes that maintaining a safe operation is the most important thing it does.
"The success of our business depends, in and of itself, on safety, and while we work to improve each and every day, we do not tolerate any relaxing of standards that govern ultimate safety across our operation," the carrier said.
Southwest said it disagreed with the report's allegations of improper influence.
"[A]t no time did Southwest inhibit or interfere with the FAA's ability to exercise oversight and investigative responsibilities," the carrier said.
An FAA spokesman said that agency takes enforcement action when called for, including proposing a $3.9 million fine against Southwest last January for allegedly operating aircraft with incorrect calculations of weight and balance data.
Concerns about flightseeing in Hawaii
The Commerce Committee also reported allegations that the FAA has failed to enforce regulatory requirements for Hawaii-based helicopter tour operators, on multiple occasions ignoring recommendations of agency inspectors. One whistleblower, an FAA inspector named Joseph Montfort, told the committee he was suspended twice for appealing to senior managers to override the operator-friendly decisions of his immediate supervisor.
In 2019, a combined 21 people died in three Hawaii helicopter tour crashes.
One of those crashes, killing seven, occurred on a helicopter operated by Kauai-based Safari Aviation on Dec. 26.
Three years earlier, says the report, Montford had begun a review of Safari's training program due to deficiencies he noted during a check ride. In September and November of 2019 Montfort requested travel authorization to Kauai in order to inspect Safari but was denied both times. At the helm of the crash in December was the same pilot who had flown Montford on that 2016 check ride.
Montford also provided the Senate committee with documents pointing to exceptions to oversight procedures granted by the FAA to Oahu-based Novictor Aviation. In April 2019 a Novictor helicopter crashed during a tour, killing all three aboard.