Some U.S. officials are concerned that Southwest Airlines is flying dozens of unsafe Boeing 737 planes it bought from 16 foreign airlines that don’t meet U.S. safety standards.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave Southwest a Jan. 31 deadline to complete safety inspections on 88 used 737s it purchased from various foreign airlines. According to the Associated Press, the agency said that less than half of the Southwest planes had been evaluated. Those that were inspected were rife with undocumented or subpar repairs.
Southwest purchased the airplanes from more than a dozen foreign carriers since 2013. The airline hired contractors to review the maintenance records for each of the aircraft, then used its FAA-granted self-regulating authority to certify the planes as safe for hauling passengers.
Last year, the FAA discovered a slew of discrepancies in the maintenance records of the acquired planes, prompting a review by Southwest that turned up 360 major repairs the contractors hadn’t documented and the airline didn’t know about, including major reinforcement repairs that led to the grounding of four of the planes in October 2018.
An additional 34 planes were grounded in November 2018 pending further inspections. The FAA then gave the airline a July 1, 2020, deadline to inspect the planes and verify that all the needed maintenance and repair work had been properly performed.
On Oct. 29, John Posey, an FAA official overseeing Southwest, said that just 39 of those planes had been evaluated. Of those, the airline found 30 undocumented repairs and 42 repairs that did not meet U.S. standards.
Southwest says it has corrected all of the problems in the 39 Boeing planes and that they meet U.S. standards for airworthiness.
As for the remaining aircraft, the FAA says it is poised to “exercise remedies up to and including grounding the aircraft” if Southwest doesn’t finish evaluating and repairing them on time, according to the Associated Press.
Southwest downplayed the safety risks the unchecked planes pose but some officials question their airworthiness. In a letter to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson, Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, expressed doubt that the uninspected planes were safe to fly. He called the FAA findings “alarming” and “troubling.”
Clayton Foushee, the FAA’s chief auditor, told Mr. Dickson that Southwest admitted it had not even translated some of the maintenance records into English. He recommended grounding the uninspected planes, saying it was “nonsensical” to claim that they held valid safety certificates.
The planes Southwest acquired from foreign carriers make up about 11% of its entire fleet. The airline currently operates a fleet of about 750 Boeing 737s.
The airline has also been hit hard by the worldwide grounding of Boeing 737 Max airplanes following the crashes of Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Air flight 302, which together killed 346 people.
Southwest had 34 Boeing 737 Max 8 planes in its fleet at the time of the grounding, the most of any domestic carrier. The airline last week said that it would not resume Max 8 flights until March 6, even if the planes are ungrounded before then.
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. Currently, Mike represents family members of victims in the Ethiopian Airlines crash involving the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft.