Southwest Airlines Allegedly Cut Corners, Pilots Struggled to Get Planes to Take Off
A scathing new Senate report gives a scary picture of how the airline forces its pilots to the limits of safety and cuts corners on safety.
Southwest Airlines allegedly jeopardized the safety of thousands of flights by forcing its pilots to fly beyond the limits of safety recommended by Boeing for operating the airline’s fleet of 737 aircraft.
This charge is in a new report made by a Senate committee as part of a scathing indictment of the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of the safety of America’s airline passengers. The committee is chaired by Senator Roger Wicker, Republican, of Mississippi.
Serious safety concerns about Southwest’s operating methods originated with a whistleblower, a veteran former Naval pilot, Jeffrey Rees, who served as one of the FAA’s safety inspectors at the airline’s Texas base.
Rees, who agreed to be identified in the report, is quoted saying that Southwest introduced changes to a computerized system that determines whether or not an airplane is safe to depart the gate that were “incredibly dangerous.”
Rees focused on a program, Performance Weight and Balance System, PWB, that is part of a critical pilot checklist before takeoff, that Southwest introduced in 2017.
All airlines use a similar system to achieve optimal efficiency for each flight: balancing how much fuel is required, how much cargo can be carried, the distribution of the passenger load, together with specific conditions at the airport at departure – weather, wind direction, air temperature, length of the runway and the altitude of the airport above sea level.
The outcome of these calculations is intended to provide sufficient safety margins for pilots to feel confident that, whatever the conditions, there is no risk involved.
Rees asserts that Southwest removed previous “safety buffers” and by doing do significantly reduced the margins for error.
In striking detail the report cites cases where pilots had difficulty getting their aircraft airborne and, during the takeoff run, had to “aggressively use electronic trim switches” to get off the runway and, in doing so, exceeded Boeing’s recommended limits for safe handling.
That meant that the nose of the airplane was pitched up to a point where it would be close to inducing an aerodynamic stall, which at that height would end with the airplane plunging to a crash.
One Southwest pilot is quoted: “I can tell you without reservation that PWB has been an impairment to me flying a 737 from A to B safely.”
A major reason for shrinking the safety margin, the report says, is that Southwest wanted to increase the amount of cargo on each flight. “Belly cargo” – cargo that goes in the baggage hold – is a growing source of revenue.
Brandy King, a Southwest spokesperson told the Daily Beast: “We discovered a discrepancy between data systems involving the weight of a number of aircraft earlier this year. Southwest took immediate actions to prevent a recurrence, which included notifying the FAA, correcting the data discrepancies, and launching a daily audit to review each of the impacted systems.
“As a result, and out of an abundance of caution, we stopped flying those aircraft for a short period of time to recalculate the weights of the aircraft and reset the program.”
In fact, the record shows that Southwest is a repeat offender when it comes to safety issues, particularly over the quality of its maintenance.
In April, 2011, A Southwest 737 with 118 passengers aboard was reaching its cruise altitude of 36,000 feet when there was an explosive failure of the fuselage structure that left a hole 50 inches long in the cabin roof. The pilots sent out a Mayday call – “we lost the cabin” – and managed to make an emergency landing.
The airplane involved was an older model of the 737, delivered in 1996, and was prone to cracks in the fuselage skin caused by corrosion. Two years earlier the airline had been fined $7.5 million by the FAA for not carrying out inspections to detect cracks on airplanes that made nearly 6,000 flights.
The problem has persisted to this day: in March a Southwest 737 made an emergency landing after a 12-inch long crack appeared above the cabin.
In 2017 FAA inspectors found “potentially serious gaps” in the maintenance of 88 older 737s that Southwest bought after being used by other airlines. The Senate report is highly critical of the airline’s maintenance record on these airplanes, saying that numerous repairs carried out “did not conform to airworthiness requirements.”
Now the challenges faced by pilots with the introduction of changes to the PWB system have added to the impression that the airline regularly cuts corners in the pursuit of profits.
Last January the FAA proposed a civil penalty of $3.92 million after discovering that 21,505 flights were operated with incorrect weight and balance settings. Yet Rees warned the Senate investigators that “non-compliance is ongoing” and has become worse because pilots had been “inadequately trained and prepared” for them.
Southwest pioneered the budget airline business model that has been copied all over the world. It is based on using one type of airplane – in the case of Southwest successive models of the Boeing 737 - and getting the maximum possible use from it, making as many as seven flights a day with a rapid turnaround at each airport.
This model has evolved at Southwest over four decades without any catastrophic crashes and, taking into account the intensity of its schedules the airline has an exemplary safety record that, beyond doubt, reflects the quality of its pilots.
However, starting in 2017, Rees has been critical of the way the airline trains its pilots. He was particularly concerned about the implementation of new training standards required by 2019 that were mandated by the FAA following the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 that killed all 49 people on board.
That crash exposed a problem that has been identified world-wide: as cockpits become more and more automated pilots have lost “seat of the pants” skills that used to be basic when dealing with an emergency.
The FAA recommended that for the new training program airlines select a small group of their best pilots to refresh their own skills and then instruct the rest of the pilots. As an ex-Navy “Top Gun” pilot, Rees had a full understanding of the problem because flying from aircraft carriers requires sharp reflexes and a true feel for the behavior of an airplane.
Rees told the Senate investigators that in his view at least 50 percent of Southwest flight crews needed retraining, but instead of following the principle of creating a small core of instructor pilots 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 made no changes, he said.
Indeed, the Senate committee’s report frequently paints a picture of ambivalence in the way the FAA supervises safety at Southwest – problems are exposed, often only after they become endemic, civil penalties are imposed, but the continuing FAA oversight on the ground is lax and tends to appease rather than confront.
Spokesperson King said, “We absolutely disagree with allegations of improper influence made within the report. At no time did Southwest inhibit or interfere with the FAA’s ability to exercise oversight.”
Southwest’s route structure across the nation encompasses a huge variety of airports and changes in seasonal climates that, in turn, mean that its pilots have to be familiar with many different and rapidly changing conditions in the most critical phases of a flight, takeoff and landing, often in one day.
Reflecting this, Rees alerted the Senate committee to the impact of the changed PWB standards on pilots flying in and out of airports with shorter runways, where the margin of error with a fully-loaded 737 is tight. He said that some pilots had taken photos demonstrating that the margin had become “low or non-existent.”
The Senate report says that committee staff spoke to multiple pilots who confirmed Rees’s report and shared his concerns but feared being fired if they spoke up.