A move that helped discount air carrier Southwest Airlines stave off some of the financial losses due to the grounding of the fatally flawed Boeing 737 MAX aircraft was adding oceanic flights from California to Hawaii to its flight schedule. Yet, a whistleblower complaint flagged concerns over the process used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to approve the new flights.
The investigation has not been made public and the findings are only preliminary but the Wall Street Journal examined documents shared between the counsel’s employees and the whistleblower. The Wall Street Journal reported that after reviewing the complaint the federal Office of Special Counsel “found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” by FAA employees.
Documents revealed the whistleblower alleged that FAA staff acted with “gross mismanagement and an abuse of authority” and that such actions were for “the financial benefit of the airline.” The whistleblower’s complaint explained that during six demonstration flights necessary for approval of the flight schedule expansion, FAA managers failed to require Southwest pilots and officials to achieve the standard necessary for approval including ensuring pilots had the license needed to fly 737 aircraft that would be used for the flights. The approval process, Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards (ETOPS), had been delayed due to a partial government shutdown. FAA managers were furloughed during the shutdown and after returning to work were under increased pressure to “meet accelerated deadlines.”
In addition to speeding up the approval process, the whistleblower also alleges that the agency made other concessions, all of which helped the airline implement what became very profitable additions to Southwest’s flight schedule.
The report comes as the FAA is working to restore its reputation as a leader in international safety.
The agency is under investigation by lawmakers and federal investigators and has been harshly criticized by global regulators for its failure to identify deadly defects that brought down Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in two separate crashes between October 2018 and March 2019. The crashes resulted in the deaths of 346 people. During that time, the agency was without an administrator. The new administrator, Stephen Dickson, was appointed last September. The FAA also has been the target of budget cuts and deregulation, which has intensified under the current administration. The hands-off approach in oversight of the aviation industry has been identified as a key factor in the agency’s missteps regarding the approval of the MAX.
Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews has been actively involved in the investigation of the Ethiopian Airlines crash involving the Boeing Max 737. He is representing family members of victims killed in that crash and visited the crash site and surrounding areas several times last year. Mike handles all types of aviation litigation for the firm, involving both civilian and military aircraft.
If the allegations of the complaint are substantiated, it will further demonstrate how the agency’s infrastructure is in need of a significant overhaul to keep from repeating systemic mistakes that affect the safety of the flying public.