On-time performance of an airline or keeping an aircraft safe – what is more important? For US-based Southwest Airlines, it may have been cheaper to overlook serious maintenance issues, and getting upset at technicans alerting Southwest Airline management to such safety concerns.
Corrosion found on Southwest Boeing aircrafts has become a safety concern. An aircraft, like any metal object, is inherently prone to corrosion. There is a lot of time spent painting an aircraft to help delay corrosion, but inevitably, nature will prevail. Usually, the development of corrosion will depend on how old the aircraft is, what type of environment it is based on, whether or not it is hangared, and how often it is cleaned. Left untreated, corrosion can make an aircraft unairworthy in just a few years.
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Now the Federal Aviation Administration and Southwest Airlines recognize safety compromised by Southwest’s coercive treatment of aircraft technicians.
FAA investigators have determined that Southwest Airlines Co. (“Southwest”) suffers from a degraded supervisory maintenance culture, which manifests itself in the pressuring of the carrier’s Aviation Maintenance Technicians (AMTs) and Inspectors to subordinate safe maintenance practices to the carrier’s schedule. Moreover, the FAA has further determined that, in the last several years, Southwest’s practices have resulted in scores of aircraft operating in revenue passenger service in an unairworthy condition.
In a September 2017 report by the FAA’s Technical Aircraft Maintenance Branch addressing whistleblower complaints raised by Dallas-based Southwest maintenance inspectors, the FAA found that coercive conduct toward maintenance employees was having an adverse impact on “all forms” of the maintenance operations, including “troubleshooting, completion of work, inspections, technical support and training.” The FAA report provides a bone-chilling description of Southwest’s coercive culture:
The motivation behind management questioning AMTs and Inspectors when they discover anything outside the scope of a maintenance task and the subsequent use of formal [disciplinary] fact-finding meetings which management utilizes to formally document an inquiry into airworthiness discrepancies, appears as a tool used to influence a relaxing of standards, to look the other way, or to gain a degree of approval through a leniency of standards. The result of this pattern is a capitulation of airworthiness and a culture of fear and retribution. … The influence being utilized to pressure technicians and question findings influence the programs and reliable tracking of the aircraft both of which have a negative impact on the overall Continuous Airworthiness Maintenance Program (CAMP).
The FAA reported that, despite the environment of intimidation, one inspector insisted on documenting damage to an aircraft’s flight control rudder balance weight that was “substantial,” but that, “rather than being praised for find a serious airworthiness issue,” the inspector was “questioned as to how and why he came to notice” the damage.
The courage of this particular inspector led to the fortunate disclosure of a “systemic” issue affecting fleet-wide safety:
Although the carrier pointed out the discrepancy was addressed, the impact to the employees and the overall maintenance organization arguably is impacted by the questioning. As noted above, this event led to the discovery of a systemic issue with the fleet and now has involvement with the carrier’s engineering and the aircraft manufacturer.
Whistleblower Protection Program (WBPP), complaint – the FAA memorandum, complaint, etc.
In a separate and independent FAA field investigation of the carrier’s Los Angeles maintenance operations conducted on September 20, 2017, the agency’s investigators reported that:
all of the mechanics interviewed except two felt pressured and under scrutiny as to whether they were either doing their job correctly or if they were finding too many things wrong with the aircraft ….
“Mechanics are told, ‘Dallas is watching us’ don’t make us look bad with delays. FAA investigators determined: there is the absence of a “Just Safety Culture.” Safety Promotion, a key part of an effective SMS [Safety Management System] seems to be deficient. There seems to be a lack of an environment of trust, effective communication and the willingness for employees to share mistakes, concerns or failure without the fear of threats or reprisal. This ultimately leads to a degraded level of safety that the SMS is trying to maintain at the highest possible level.
In response to whistleblower complaints by aircraft mechanics at Southwest’s Las Vegas maintenance station, an FAA determination letter, dated October 5, 2017, “substantiated that a violation of an order regulation or standard of the FAA related to air carrier safety occurred,” which required “appropriate corrective and/or enforcement action.”
The FAA determined that Southwest had improperly issued a memorandum entitled “Cargo Door Handle Housing Assemblies” designed to accelerate the evaluation of delay-causing aircraft damage.
(The FAA’s regional investigators expressed their particular concern that “[Southwest Maintenance] Leaders did not remove it from circulation once aware of its existence.”
Report of Investigation
Southwest’s deliberate violation of federal aviation standards is echoed in an FAA compliant in November, 2014, which alleged that the company had flown 44 aircraft in an unairworthy condition as a result of improper repairs to skin panels that undermined the structural integrity of the fuselages. The FAA determined that Southwest continued to operate the unairworthy aircraft for six months after the FAA had advised the carrier that the aircraft were non-compliant.
The FAA also found that additional aircraft were rendered unairworthy by faulty wiring related to gray water drain mast modifications that were necessary to address the planes’ susceptibility to fires and electrical disruptions in the event of a lightning strike. Here again, the FAA determined that Southwest continued to operate these aircraft in an unairworthy condition even after it was discovered that the case ground wire terminal had not been properly relocated and connected.
Maintaining safe aircraft in accordance with federal aviation standards takes time and money. Violating the law is faster and cheaper.
As a result, AMTs at Southwest find themselves subjected to a Hobson’s Choice – jeopardize your FAA license or lose your job. In Las Vegas, when an AMT expressed concerns about retaliation in response to his reports of aircraft discrepancies, his supervisor responded:
“If you’re worried about your [FAA] license … write them up. … If you’re worried about your job, then I don’t know.”
Presumably in response to pressure from the FAA, Southwest has acknowledged in stark language that the carrier suffers from a maintenance culture that subordinates aircraft safety to on-time performance. On December 6, 2017, Southwest’s Vice President Technical Operations Trevor Stedke described a problem-plagued maintenance program that ignores its own policies and procedures and releases unairworthy aircraft into revenue service:
We’ve had several examples recently. Everything from calls to the FAA in DC, to AD over flies, engine operation. We had a wing that flew around [that] was damaged from an unknown period of time with of course nothing documented.
We’ve been through a dent program. We’ve had several dents found to be noncompliant, re-worked without anything documented in our maintenance systems.
Damage events, lockout, carryout.
And you all know that the list goes on and on about several things that examples of where we’re bypassing or policies and procedures and we have got to get that rectified and cleaned up if we have any hope of getting ETOPS and maintain ETOPS in the future.
Stedke identified the degradation of Southwest safety culture as the principal culprit behind these safety lapses:
There is a perception, I think from some, that all On Time Performance trumps compliance. And our expectation as a Leadership Team is that we really want On Time Performance higher than compliance. And what we speak to On Time Performance and measure On Time Performance. We say compliance but it’s kind of a wink, wink, you know, make sure you get the airplane out, and that’s, nothing can be further from the truth.
Vice President of Maintenance Operations Landon Nitschke describes Southwest’s maintenance culture in the same disturbing terms:
And, you know, sometime we hide our compliance issues under the Warrior Spirit, right? In order to placate the FAA, and obtain lucrative Hawaiian markets that require prior ETOPs approval, Southwest has proclaimed that 2018 will be the year that it repents of its unlawful past. As the Vice President of Technical Operations declared in December, 2017:
So compliance effectiveness is going to be a new item on our dashboard this year. We’re going to set those measure and make sure that’s part of our metrics that are driving the right behaviors across the organization.
Confirming that the Plaintiff’s interest in safe aircraft maintenance is a freshly-discovered value, Vice President of Maintenance Operations Nitschke has announced, literally, that Southwest will be singing a new tune in 2018:
So big effort this year. We definitely need to repair some things with the FAA not only as a Company, but, I think, as people. I think there are some things with, you know, AMTs being questioned. Supervisors certainly being questioned. Those are things we want to get into. We want to make sure that we handle that at a Company level, so again, compliance, compliance, compliance is going to be our theme song for 2018.
Southwest concedes that this wrenching shift in gears – from pushing out planes to a genuine concern for safety – has left both management and Southwest AMTs in a state of bewilderment:
We had a discussion in Breakfast Club, our morning Ops meeting, this morning. And I think [Southwest Director of Quality Assurance] Gregg Brown said it – we are all so confused in the room. It’s like well can you imagine what our front-line Mechanics think? And so as Leaders, that’s what we need to correct. But to Trevor’s point, it goes throughout the organization all the way through everyone to make sure that we are compliant.
As aircraft mechanics struggle to defend their right and obligation to properly maintain aircraft, Southwest has continued a policy of outsourcing maintenance work to foreign countries that offer no whistleblower protections. Already the major airline with the lowest mechanic to aircraft ratio in the United States, Southwest is seeking to increase its outsourcing thereby diminishing its reliance on employees who attempt to defend their rights.
Who should be thanked?
Lee Seham, Esq.