FAA Eyed Ordering Southwest to Idle 38 Jets Over Records

U.S. regulators recently considered grounding more than three dozen Southwest Airlines Co. jets because the airline couldn’t show that they met all mandatory safety standards, according to government documents.

Congressional investigators and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general’s office are stepping up scrutiny of such issues involving operation of used foreign aircraft Southwest introduced into its fleet over the years, according to the documents and people familiar with the details. In letters to the Federal Aviation Administration over the past two weeks, the carrier indicated it previously found dozens of problematic repairs on other planes, done before it bought those aircraft. The problems included substandard or improper fixes.

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The basic problem Southwest is grappling with stems from a lack of reliable paperwork needed to verify that repairs, small fixes and a host of maintenance actions were conducted while the planes were being flown by their previous operators. Without clear-cut documentation, neither Southwest nor regulators can definitively verify that all safety requirements have been met.

Southwest told the FAA in a letter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal that it considered the issue more of a record-keeping problem than a safety risk. Late last week, after discussions between senior FAA and Southwest officials, the agency permitted the planes to continue carrying passengers once Southwest agreed to accelerate required inspections so all the aircraft will be checked out completely by the end of January, according to people familiar with the discussions. The previous deadline was July.

Southwest’s difficulty documenting the maintenance history of the used planes is unusual. The company initially believed it had all the necessary backup documents but later it turned out some important paperwork was missing or incomplete, the documents show. The carrier told the FAA it had 50 employees evaluate 63,000 repair documents in 15 languages.

Southwest responded to questions from the Journal by saying it has complied fully with the long-term, enhanced inspection program covering older 737 models acquired overseas and that none of the discrepancies threatened flight safety.

Southwest has told the FAA that each of the 38 planes has already gone through extensive regular maintenance since joining the airline’s fleet.

“A small number of repairs on a few aircraft had been performed but not properly classified by the previous owners because of differences in language and repair criteria,” a Southwest spokeswoman said

The planes in focus are among 88 used jets Southwest incorporated into its fleet, which totals more than 750 planes, from roughly 2013 to 2017. The used planes were previously flown by carriers in countries including Canada, China, Russia, Argentina and Turkey. At this point, 41 of those planes have been inspected from nose to tail, had their paperwork vetted and were deemed fully compliant with all FAA rules and requirements. Another nine jets are undergoing inspections.

The lack of complete documentation for the remaining 38 foreign aircraft has attracted the attention of FAA inspectors and the DOT inspector general’s staff. A veteran maintenance inspector first expressed concern in 2018 and the issue resurfaced this summer as local FAA managers heard more complaints from inspectors about lack of maintenance paperwork, according to people briefed on the discussions.

Relying on safety data and analyses prepared by the airline, the agency projected the risks of an accident or other serious problem are low and comparable to those identified on Southwest aircraft that were inspected by the airline earlier, according to FAA documents. Those previously inspected planes were allowed to fly as they were being vetted under a two-year special safety review, the backup inspection and verification program, initiated in 2018 when Southwest first disclosed to regulators the deficiencies found through its review of the 88 planes.

More recently, the FAA’s moves to require Southwest to resolve outstanding questions sparked congressional interest. The issue of undocumented maintenance was highlighted in preliminary findings the inspector general’s staff presented to the FAA weeks ago, which in October prompted the agency to take action and explain the situation to various House and Senate panels.

FAA leadership received two separate official warnings on issues related to the used aircraft more than two weeks ago.

In an Oct. 24 memo to FAA chief

Steve Dickson,

Clayton Foushee, head of the agency’s office of audit and evaluation and effectively the agency’s top internal watchdog, said the lack of maintenance paperwork required urgent action. He recommended immediately grounding more than four dozen of the planes Southwest had acquired overseas, noting that the airline “is unable to certify to the FAA (or the flying public) that” the jets complied with mandatory safety standards.

Mr. Foushee’s

memo, which was released by the Senate Commerce Committee Monday, laid out an alleged pattern of “little or no oversight” by Southwest of a third-party maintenance contractor named Cavok, which the carrier put in charge of inspecting the planes and vouching that prior maintenance met U.S. requirements. Cavok is a division of the consulting company Oliver Wyman, owned by Marsh & McLennan Cos. Oliver Wyman didn’t respond to detailed requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Southwest declined to comment on the specific issues raised in Mr. Foushee’s memo.

Mr. Foushee’s memo explained details of efforts by Southwest and the FAA to verify the condition of all 88 foreign airliners the carrier merged into its domestic fleet. He criticized the carrier’s procedures, writing that at the time the FAA gave permission for the planes to fly in the U.S., Southwest “admitted that they had not even translated all the maintenance records into English.”

In addition, the memo said that by the end of 2018, Southwest had uncovered 360 major repairs that Cavok hadn’t reported to either the airline or the FAA during its initial records review. By early October of this year, according to Mr. Foushee’s memo, Southwest uncovered another 72 repairs that either hadn’t been documented or weren’t performed according to U.S. standards. Two out of three of those planes had some paperwork discrepancy.

The second red flag came from the office of the DOT’s inspector general. The same day Mr. Foushee wrote his memo, a team from that office briefed the FAA’s leadership on lapses in the agency’s safety oversight of Southwest. That briefing, according to Mr. Foushee’s memo and people familiar with the discussion, included safety concerns about permitting the used planes to fly.

In responding to the FAA’s October letter,

Shawn Jensen,

Southwest’s director of regulatory compliance, indicated that the airline considers the issue a paperwork problem rather than a safety risk. Southwest, he wrote, is taking steps “to reduce the risk of regulatory noncompliance, rather than an elevated safety risk.”

The current questions raised by lawmakers mirror difficulties faced a decade ago by Southwest, its leaders and the FAA, in another controversy over maintenance compliance. In 2009 Southwest agreed to pay $7.5 million in penalties to settle allegations that it operated 46 aircraft on 60,000 flights without completing mandatory maintenance checks for potential fuselage cracks.

Congressional hearings and public outcry surrounding disclosure of those lapses sparked a wide-ranging debate over whether the FAA had an improperly cozy relationship with the airlines it oversaw, particularly Southwest. According to testimony on Capitol Hill at the time by FAA and Southwest employees, local FAA officials had allowed Southwest to keep the planes in service despite knowing certain mandatory safety checks hadn’t been performed.

The FAA in late October threatened to ground 38 of Southwest’s

Boeing Co.

737 jets still waiting for comprehensive inspections by Southwest, citing potential risks “posed by undocumented or nonconforming repairs,” according to a letter to Southwest from the agency that was reviewed by the Journal. Dated Oct. 29 and signed by

John Posey,

manager of the FAA’s Dallas office overseeing Southwest, the letter said if the agency’s concerns weren’t adequately addressed “the FAA may exercise remedies up to and including grounding.”

Reflecting the seriousness of the issues, following the FAA’s Oct. 29 warning letter to Southwest, Mr. Dickson and the airline’s chief executive,

Gary Kelly,

spoke to each other, according to people briefed on the deliberations. The agency and Southwest subsequently agreed to the accelerated inspection plan, including the Jan. 31 deadline, to keep the planes in the air.

The FAA must agree that a plane is safe to fly in the U.S., and maintenance records are used in making that determination. In late November last year, after audits of some of the planes’ maintenance records raised concerns, the FAA briefly grounded more than 30 of Southwest’s planes until certain inspections were carried out, the documents show.

The latest arguments over whether the maintenance and repairs were conducted, and if so whether they were done and documented properly, haven’t been previously reported. They come as both Southwest and the FAA struggle with fallout from the separate 737 MAX crisis, which involves different, newer versions of Boeing’s most popular jetliner.

Is the Federal Aviation Administration too close to the industry it regulates? In the wake of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, The Wall Street Journal examines why the FAA is facing renewed scrutiny into its aircraft certification process.

An FAA spokesman said the agency validated certain major repairs and is now requiring more frequent updates on the progress of inspections on the used planes. In an email sent to some congressional committees at the end of October, the FAA said Southwest “is taking our concerns seriously.”

As questions arose about safety-related maintenance and paperwork,

Rep. Peter DeFazio

of Oregon, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee, wrote Mr. Dickson, the FAA chief, in late in October, “If the FAA cannot conclude with absolute certainty that the aircraft are airworthy, they should not be in the skies.”

As part of its overall risk assessment, completed in the week following the FAA’s October letter, Southwest told the agency that it had analyzed whether the 38 planes had experienced incidents subjecting them to unusual structural stress, such as landing too hard or carrying too much weight; damage from ground equipment; or striking an aircraft’s tail on the tarmac during takeoffs and landings. Southwest found over 1,200 such events but determined that they didn’t significantly increase the risk of continuing to fly the planes.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com and Alison Sider at alison.sider@wsj.com

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