During the period of 2013 through 2017, Southwest Airlines acquired a total of 88 airplanes, referred to by Southwest Airlines as the Skyline Aircraft. These aircraft were previously operated by 16 various foreign air carriers. Southwest Airlines used multiple contractors to conduct the required review of maintenance records associated with these aircraft. After contractors conducted this review, Southwest Airlines, through its Delegated Airworthiness Representatives (DAR) authority granted by the FAA, issued these 88 aircraft Airworthiness Certificates, allowing them to enter revenue service.
In May of 2018, an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI) discovered discrepancies in the records of some of these 88 aircraft during routine inspections. The ASI’s discovery prompted a full records review by Southwest Airlines of all 88 aircraft. This review found 360 major repairs that had been previously unknown to Southwest Airlines because they were not disclosed in the contractors’ initial review. Multiple planes were grounded in November of 2018 for immediate maintenance to bring them into regulatory compliance as a result of these newly discovered prior major repairs.
FAA allowed Southwest Airlines to continue to operate these aircraft in revenue service as they assessed the previous repairs over a two year period with a target completion date of July 1, 2020. As a result, Southwest Airlines appears to have operated aircraft in unknown airworthiness conditions for thousands of flights. The ASI who discovered the initial discrepancies in the records, and who later became a Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (DOT OIG) and congressional whistleblower, disagreed vehemently with FAA management’s assessment. The ASI elevated these concerns initially within the FAA Southwest Airlines Certificate Management Office (CMO) and eventually to senior FAA management without success. The ASI then took these concerns to the DOT OIG, who investigated the matter and briefed FAA management on its initial findings on October 24, 2019. That same day, the director of FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation (AAE), Clay Foushee, sent FAA Administrator Steve Dickson an urgent memo summarizing the Skyline Aircraft issue and recommending that the FAA take immediate action to either suspend or revoke the airworthiness certificates of the 49 aircraft that had yet to be inspected.
On October 4, 2019, Southwest Airlines provided the FAA a quarterly report as part of its FAA-approved program to review all of the Skyline Aircraft repairs. The report explained that of the 88 Skyline Aircraft, 39 had been fully reviewed; 24 of those 39 aircraft were found to have undocumented repairs that were nonconforming to compliance requirements. As a result of this report and of the OIG briefing, on October 29, FAA Southwest Airlines CMO Manager John Posey sent a letter to Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Michael Van de Ven expressing concern about both the speed with which Southwest Airlines is completing the maintenance checks and the potential for the remaining 49 aircraft to require the same immediate maintenance to come into compliance. The letter gave Southwest Airlines two business days to conduct a Safety Risk Analysis (SRA) to determine whether issues identified in the evaluation of the first 39 aircraft establish a trend that will be repeated in the remaining 49. On October 29, upon receipt of the Posey letter, Chairman Wicker spoke to FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell to express his significant concerns.
On October 31, 2019, Southwest Airlines provided a response to John Posey’s letter. In Southwest Airlines’ letter, the company states that they assess a low risk associated with the remaining aircraft and any unknown major repairs. Southwest Airlines also accelerated the timeline for completing the remaining inspections by five months – from July 1, 2020 to January 31, 2020. In response, the FAA communicated to congressional committees of jurisdiction that it believes Southwest Airlines is taking the FAA’s concerns seriously and that revoking the airworthiness certificates of the uninspected aircraft is unnecessary.
According to FAA whistleblowers, the initial review of maintenance records conducted by contractors was alarmingly insufficient. FAA whistleblowers indicate that maintenance and repair documents are critical to the airworthiness inspection process, as they are used to “bridge” repairs to inspections. Whistleblowers claim one contractor did not even translate many of these foreign-language documents from the original foreign carriers in order to effectively evaluate what repairs and maintenance had or had not been completed on the airplanes. According to a whistleblower, Southwest Airlines accepted the document review from contractors knowing it was insufficient.
Whistleblowers contend that as a result, Southwest Airlines knowingly relied on a flawed documentation review to issue the original Airworthiness Certificates pursuant to its DAR authority. Whistleblowers assert that the original Airworthiness Certificates issued are invalid and should have been revoked when the scope of the deficiency was clearly understood and documented in December of 2018. The committee has reviewed documents and communications which indicate that senior FAA officials were made aware of this issue at least as early as September of 2018. In September of 2018, one FAA ASI elevated his concerns up the chain of command though the Southwest Airlines CMO manager, the Director of the Office of Air Carrier Safety Assurance, and eventually to the Deputy Executive Director of the FAA Flight Standards Service. The ASI repeatedly articulated significant risk to aviation safety, but no significant actions appear to have been taken as a result.
On October 30, 2019, Chairman Wicker sent a letter to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson expressing concern about the Skyline Aircraft issue at Southwest Airlines. Chairman Wicker requested that Administrator Dickson provide updates on all developments related to the Skyline Aircraft issue. The Commerce Committee will continue its oversight efforts and is in constant contact with numerous whistleblowers.
- AAE Director Clay Foushee’s October 24 memo to Administrator Dickson - link
- Southwest Airlines CMO Manager John Posey’s October 29 letter to Southwest Airlines COO Michael Van de Ven - link
- Chairman Wicker's October 30 letter to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson - link