Southwest Airlines is said to have put the safety of thousands of flights at risk by forcing its pilots to fly beyond the safety limits recommended by Boeing for the operation of the airline’s fleet of 737 planes.
The accusation appears in a new report by a Senate committee as part of a scathing indictment of the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of passenger safety on U.S. airlines. The committee is chaired by Senator Roger Wicker, Republican, of Mississippi.
Serious safety concerns about Southwest’s operating methods originate from a whistleblower, a former Navy pilot, Jeffrey Rees, who was one of the FAA’s safety inspectors at the base of the airline in Texas.
Rees, who agreed to be identified in the report, allegedly said Southwest introduced changes to a computerized system that determined whether a plane could leave the gate safely, which was “incredibly dangerous.”
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Rees focused on one program, Performance Weight and Balance System, PWB, which is part of a critical pilot’s pre-take-off checklist, which Southwest introduced in 2017.
All airlines use a similar system to achieve optimum efficiency for each flight: balancing the amount of fuel needed, the amount of cargo that can be carried, the distribution of the passenger load, as well as the specific airport conditions at the airport. departure – weather, wind direction, air temperature, runway length and airport altitude above sea level.
The result of these calculations aims to provide sufficient safety margins so that pilots can be sure that, whatever the conditions, there is no risk.
Rees says Southwest has removed previous “safety buffers” and in doing so has significantly reduced the margins of error.
The report cites in vivid detail instances where pilots had difficulty getting their aircraft to take off and, during the take-off roll, had to “aggressively use electronic trim switches” to exit the runway and, this doing so, have exceeded Boeing’s recommended limits for safe handling.
This meant that the nose of the plane was tilted to a point where it would be close to inducing an aerodynamic stall, which at that height would end with the plane diving into a crash.
A Southwest pilot said, “I can tell you without reservation that PWB has prevented me from flying a 737 from A to B safely.”
According to the report, one of the main reasons for the reduction in the safety margin is that Southwest wanted to increase the amount of cargo on each flight. Belly cargo – the cargo that goes into the baggage compartment – is a growing source of income.
Brandy King, a spokesperson for the Southwest told The Daily Beast: “We discovered a discrepancy between data systems involving the weight of a number of planes earlier this year. Southwest took immediate action to prevent a recurrence, including notifying the FAA, correcting data discrepancies and launching a daily audit to examine each of the affected systems.
“As a result, and out of caution, we stopped piloting these devices for a short time in order to recalculate the device weights and reset the program.”
In fact, the record shows Southwest is a repeat offender when it comes to safety concerns, especially when it comes to the quality of its upkeep.
In April 2011, a Southwest 737 with 118 passengers on board was reaching cruising altitude of 36,000 feet when there was an explosive rupture of the fuselage structure that left a 50-inch-long hole in the roof of the cabin. The pilots sent a Mayday call – “we lost the cabin” – and managed to make an emergency landing.
The aircraft involved was an older model of the 737, delivered in 1996, and was prone to cracks in the skin of the fuselage caused by corrosion. Two years earlier, the airline was fined $ 7.5 million by the FAA for failing to conduct inspections to find cracks on planes that have made nearly 6,000 flights.
The problem has persisted to this day: In March, a 737 from the southwest made an emergency landing after a 12-inch crack appeared above the cabin.
In 2017, FAA inspectors discovered “potentially serious deficiencies” in the maintenance of 88,737 older Southwest purchased after being used by other airlines. The Senate report strongly criticizes the airline’s maintenance record on these planes, saying that many repairs carried out “did not comply with airworthiness requirements.”
Now the challenges pilots face with the introduction of changes to the PWB system have added to the impression that the airline is steadily cutting corners in pursuit of profit.
Last January, the FAA proposed a civil penalty of $ 3.92 million after discovering that 21,505 flights were operated with incorrect mass and balance parameters. Still, Rees warned Senate investigators that “the non-compliance is ongoing” and that it has worsened because the pilots were “insufficiently trained and prepared” for them.
Southwest pioneered the low-cost airline business model that has been copied around the world. It relies on using just one type of aircraft – in the case of successive Southwestern models of the Boeing 737 – and getting the most out of it, performing up to seven flights a day with a fast turnaround at each airport.
This model has evolved at Southwest for four decades without any catastrophic crashes and, given the intensity of its schedules, the airline has an exemplary safety record which, without a doubt, reflects the quality of its pilots.
However, starting in 2017, Rees criticized the way the airline trains its pilots. He was particularly concerned with the implementation of the new training standards required by 2019 that were mandated by the FAA following the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009 that killed all 49 people on board.
This accident revealed a problem that has been identified around the world: As cockpits become more and more automated, pilots have lost “pant seat” skills that were previously basic to dealing with an emergency.
The FAA recommended that, for the new training program, airlines select a small group of their top pilots to refresh their own skills, and then train the rest of the pilots. As a former Navy “Top Gun” pilot, Rees had a full understanding of the problem because flying from aircraft carriers requires acute reflexes and a real feel for the behavior of an aircraft.
Rees told Senate investigators that in his opinion at least 50% of the flight crews in the Southwest needed retraining, but instead of following the principle of creating a small core of instructor pilots, the southwest assigned 400 pilots to speed up the process and that this “precluded adequate quality. control.”
Rees alleged that when he suggested to his FAA supervisor that a warning letter be sent to Southwest that the training program was seriously flawed, the supervisor told another FAA inspector to write a “softer” letter. Southwest hasn’t made any changes, he said.
Indeed, the Senate committee report frequently paints a picture of ambivalence in the way the FAA oversees security in the Southwest – the problems are exposed, often only after they have become endemic, civil penalties are imposed. , but the FAA’s ongoing surveillance in the field is lax and strained. appease rather than confront.
Spokesman King said: “We strongly disagree with the allegations of undue influence made in the report. At no time did Southwest prevent or interfere with the FAA’s ability to monitor. “
The Southwestern route structure across the country encompasses a wide variety of airports and seasonal climatic changes which, in turn, mean its pilots have to familiarize themselves with many different and rapidly changing conditions in phases most critical of a flight, take-off and landing, often in one day.
Reflecting this, Rees alerted the Senate committee to the impact of changes in PWB standards on pilots entering and exiting airports with shorter runways, where the margin of error with a fully loaded 737 is narrow. He said some pilots had taken pictures showing that the margin had become “low or non-existent”.
The Senate report says committee staff spoke to several pilots who confirmed Rees’ report and shared his concerns, but feared they would be fired if they spoke.
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