Southwest Airlines Allegedly Cut Corners, Pilots Struggled to Get Planes to Take Off
Southwest Airlines has reportedly compromised the safety of thousands of flights by forcing their pilots to fly beyond the safety limits recommended by Boeing for the operation of the airline's 737 aircraft.
The charges are in a recent Senate committee report on a damning indictment brought against the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of American passenger safety. Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker chairs the committee.
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Serious safety concerns about Southwest's operating methods were raised by a whistleblower, a veteran former Marine pilot, Jeffrey Rees, who was serving as one of the FAA's safety inspectors at the airline's base in Texas.
Rees, who agreed to be identified in the report, is quoted as saying that Southwest introduced changes to a computer system that determines whether an aircraft is safe to exit the gate, which was "incredibly dangerous".
Rees focused on a program, Performance Weight and Balance System, PWB, which is part of a critical pre-launch pilot checklist that Southwest introduced in 2017.
All airlines use a similar system in order to achieve optimal efficiency for each flight: compensation for how much fuel is required, how much cargo can be carried, distribution of passenger cargo and specific conditions at the airport at departure - weather, wind direction, air temperature, length the runway and the height of the airport above sea level.
The result of these calculations is intended to provide pilots with sufficient safety margins so that they can be sure that no matter the conditions, there is no risk.
Rees claims that Southwest removed previous "safety buffers", thereby significantly reducing the error rate.
The report goes into striking detail in cases where pilots had difficulty getting their aircraft into the air and had to use "aggressively electronic trim switches" during take-off to get off the runway, within the Boeing recommended limits for safe use Handling exceeded.
That meant the aircraft's nose was tilted to a point where it would almost result in an aerodynamic stall, which at that altitude would result in the aircraft crashing.
A Southwest pilot is quoted as saying: "I can tell you without reservation that PWB is a nuisance for me when I safely fly a 737 from A to B."
A major reason the margin of safety decrease is that Southwest wanted to increase the amount of cargo on each flight, according to the report. Belly cargo - cargo that gets into the hold - is a growing source of income.
Brandy King, a spokesman from the Southwest, told the Daily Beast, “We discovered a discrepancy between data systems earlier this year concerning the weight of a number of aircraft. Southwest immediately took steps to prevent a recurrence. This included notifying the FAA, correcting data discrepancies and initiating a daily audit to review all affected systems.
"As a result, we cautiously suspended these aircraft for a short period of time to recalculate the aircraft's weights and reset the program."
In fact, the record shows that Southwest is a repeat offender when it comes to safety issues, particularly the quality of its maintenance.
In April 2011, a Southwest 737 with 118 passengers on board reached its cruising altitude of 36,000 feet when an explosive fuselage structure failure occurred, leaving a 50-inch hole in the canopy. The pilots sent a Mayday call - "We have lost the cabin" - and managed an emergency landing.
The aircraft affected was an older model of the 737, delivered in 1996, and was prone to corrosion-induced cracks in the fuselage skin. Two years earlier, the airline had been fined $ 7.5 million by the FAA for failing to conduct inspections to find cracks in planes that had made nearly 6,000 flights.
The problem persists to this day: In March, a Southwest 737 made an emergency landing after a 12-inch crack appeared above the cabin.
In 2017, FAA inspectors identified "potentially serious gaps" in the maintenance of 88 older 737s that Southwest bought after being used by other airlines. The Senate report is extremely critical of the airline's maintenance records for these aircraft, saying that numerous repairs "were not airworthy."
Now, the challenges pilots are facing with the introduction of changes to the PWB system have reinforced the impression that the airline is regularly cutting back on profits tracking.
In January last year, the FAA suggested a civil penalty of $ 3.92 million after finding 21,505 flights performed with incorrect weight and balance settings. Still, Rees warned Senate investigators that "the non-compliance is ongoing" and has worsened because pilots were "insufficiently trained and prepared".
Southwest pioneered the low cost airline business model that was copied worldwide. It is based on using one type of aircraft - in the case of successive Southwest models of the Boeing 737 - and using it as much as possible, with up to seven flights per day with fast turnaround at each airport.
This model has evolved in the southwest over four decades without catastrophic crashes. Taking into account the intensity of its flight schedules, the airline has an exemplary safety record which undoubtedly reflects the quality of its pilots.
However, since 2017 Rees has been criticizing the way the airline trains its pilots. He was particularly concerned about the implementation of new training standards mandated by the FAA by 2019 following the 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash that killed all 49 people on board.
This crash posed a problem that has been identified around the world: as cockpits become more and more automated, pilots have lost their skills that were previously essential in an emergency.
The FAA recommended that airlines select a small group of their best pilots for the new training program to brush up on their own skills and then train the rest of the pilots. As a former Navy Top Gun pilot, Rees had a thorough understanding of the problem, as flying aircraft carriers requires sharp reflexes and a real feel for aircraft behavior.
Rees told Senate investigators that he believed at least 50 percent of the flight crews in the Southwest needed retraining, but instead of following the principle of creating a small core of flight instructors, Southwest hired 400 pilots to expedite the process, and that "Appropriate quality precluded control."
Rees alleged that when he suggested that his FAA supervisor send a warning letter to Southwest that the training program was seriously flawed, the supervisor asked another FAA inspector to write a "softer" letter. Southwest didn't make any changes, he said.
In fact, the Senate Committee's report often paints a picture of the ambivalence in the way the FAA oversees security in the Southwest - issues are exposed, often only after they become endemic, civil penalties imposed, but continued oversight of the FAA on site is weak and tends to appease rather than confront.
Spokesman King said, “We absolutely disagree with the allegations of undue influence made in the report. At no point has Southwest inhibited or compromised the FAA's ability to exercise oversight. "
Southwest's route structure across the country includes a variety of airports and changes in seasonal climates, which in turn means pilots must be familiar with many different and rapidly changing conditions during the most critical phases of a flight, take-off and landing. often in a day.
Because of this, Rees alerted the Senate Committee to the impact of the revised PWB standards on pilots flying in and out of airports with shorter runways, where the error rate is low on a fully loaded 737. He said some pilots took photos showing that the margin was "low or no longer there".
The Senate report says that the committee's staff spoke to several pilots who confirmed Rees' report and shared his concerns but feared they would be fired if they spoke up.
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