For the past year, the FAA has been investigating Southwest
Airlines' procedures for calculating and recording the weight and balance of
aircraft, the agency confirmed in an email Tuesday.
The investigation, first revealed by the Wall Street Journal
on Monday, deals primarily with miscalculations of the total weight of checked
luggage on Southwest flights. Such miscalculations have the potential to cause
safety problems since pilots rely upon them to compute takeoff weights.
Discrepancies between an aircraft's reported and actual weight/weight
distribution could manifest as a safety problem for a pilot in an extreme
situation such as engine failure, the WSJ said.
In its email Tuesday, the FAA said it began investigating
the weight and balance performance data of Southwest in February 2018.
"Since that time, the FAA has directed the development
of a comprehensive solution to the methods and processes used by Southwest
Airlines to determine this performance data," an agency spokesperson said.
"The FAA will not close its investigation until it is satisfied that
Southwest's corrective actions are consistent and sustained."
In its own statement, Southwest said that it voluntarily
reported the issues to the FAA last year.
"Since that time, Southwest has implemented controls
and enhanced procedures to address our weight and balance program concerns, and
we've shared those measures with the FAA," the carrier said. "Southwest
believes the controls and procedures we implemented throughout 2018 have
enhanced our weight and balance program and resolved the issues that we
originally reported to the FAA. Accordingly, Southwest Airlines requested the
investigation be closed."
A portion of the statement runs counter to the Wall Street
Journal report. The newspaper cited internal FAA documents from the
investigation in which inspectors wrote that the investigation was begun, in
part, due to allegations made by a whistleblower.
By the end of this year, Southwest plans to begin scanning
all bags on the tarmac prior to loading them into the plane -- a step already
taken by other U.S. carriers. At present, Southwest baggage
loaders keep a manual count of checked bags.
Some FAA officials told the WSJ that during certain time frames,
at least one-third of Southwest's approximately 4,000 flights per day could
have taken to the skies with inaccurate weight data.
Southwest disputes that claim.
"There is no current information to support the estimate
that one-third of Southwest flights are dispatched with a weight and balance
inaccuracy," the carrier said. "Our goal is to always operate with
zero weight and balance planning inaccuracies, and our processes and procedures
directly support that mission.
"We will continue our stringent monitoring of operating
systems and procedures and always voluntarily report things that we believe can
be improved to enhanced aviation safety."