FAA investigates luggage weight discrepancies with Southwest Airlines



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Federal Aviation Safety Regulators Investigate

Southwest Airlines
Co.

LUV -0.52%

for generalized failures to accurately track the combined weight of the checked baggage loaded in each of his jets, according to government documents and internal agencies.

The documents show that the federal aviation administration's one-year civil investigations revealed systemic and significant errors in employee calculations and baggage loading practices, which can lead to discrepancies when pilots calculate take-off weight. . The inaccuracies ranged from a few dozen pounds to more than 1,000 pounds in addition to what was stated in the records, which caused disputes between the company and some agency inspectors about the potential safety consequences.

In an email to the Wall Street Journal last week, an FAA spokesman confirmed the investigation and said the agency had ordered "a complete solution to the methods and processes used" by the airline . "The FAA will not close its investigation until it is satisfied that the corrective actions taken by Southwest are consistent and sustainable," the spokesperson's e-mail added.

The agency has not yet decided to impose fines or other penalties, according to people familiar with the investigation, which has not been reported before.

A southwestern spokesman said the airline was cooperating fully with the FAA and was voluntarily reporting problems to improve security.

A southwestern spokesman said the airline was cooperating fully with the FAA and was voluntarily reporting problems to improve security.

Photo:

Laura Buckman / Bloomberg News

In e-mail responses to the Journal's questions, a Southwest spokesperson said he had fully cooperated with the FAA and that he was voluntarily reporting problems to improve security. He said that the company's relationship with the agency was part of a "routine dialogue". Noting that the agency had not imposed any fines or other formal enforcement action, the spokesman said that the FAA exchanges "do not constitute a finding of non-compliance". . The airline has announced plans to introduce new baggage counting procedures by the end of the year.

Unlike other major US airlines, Southwest does not rely on computer scanners to ensure baggage accuracy while bags are piled up in the belly of planes. Instead, the carrier asks the ground crew to count the bags. Regardless of how baggage is counted, airlines use average baggage weight to calculate the total weight of checked baggage. During the investigation, Southwest told the FAA that its system entailed "no minor risk" for passengers, according to documents.

However, some FAA inspectors have expressed their fear that in extreme circumstances, such as an engine failure during take-off, an aircraft may encounter handling difficulties. Pilots determine the speed and take-off thrust based on the total weight of the aircraft and its distribution, including passengers, fuel and hold contents.

There have been no southwestern accidents associated with suspicious weights, and the investigation – described by the FAA in the documents as a high-priority "enforcement investigation" – continues.

Dozens of FAA survey updates and other documents reviewed by the Journal reveal numerous compliance issues with the requirements imposed by agencies on pilots, who have verified the total updated weight of the aircraft before takeoff. The files also include extensive correspondence – dating back to January 2018 – between branch directors and Southwest officials about various perspectives on security implications.

During the past year, Southwest has implemented procedural changes and internal reporting safeguards, repeatedly reminding the FAA in its documents that persistent problems with manual bag counting and weights were well within the margins of

Boeing
Co.

737s. According to Southwest, distracted baggage handlers and last-minute baggage are a major cause of cargo errors.

In the midst of persistent FAA concerns, Southwest is embracing technology. The spokesman said the carrier plans to introduce a computerized scan of all individual bags on the tarmac just before loading them in the cargo holds of its more than 700 Boeing 737s.

In a January 11 letter, Jeff Hamlett, senior director of regulatory compliance at Southwest, told a senior FAA inspector that the scanners should be commissioned first in Seattle, San Diego and Sacramento. After that, the carrier "will review the test results and evaluate the phased deployment," he added.

In the same letter to the FAA Local Authority, Southwest, which carries more domestic passengers than any other carrier, requested that the investigation be closed without further action by the FAA, citing "our efforts and responsiveness to the Regards your office ".

Some FAA officials have estimated in interviews that at least a third of the approximately 4,000 daily flights operated by Southwest could have been operated with inaccurate weight data, a figure that Southwest does not support. The Southwest spokesman said that there is currently no information to support this estimate, "particularly given the controls and adjustments we have put in place."

According to the government and industry officials, it is unusual that this type of FAA investigation lasts as long without at least a measure of provisional enforcement. The agency and Southwest also have exceptionally divergent views on the reasons for the investigation, said officials.

In the documents, the agency's inspectors wrote that the investigation was triggered in part by separate allegations filed by a whistleblower and received by an agency's hotline for security complaints. In contrast, the Southwest spokesman said the investigation was triggered entirely by voluntary reports from the airline and its employees.

In early 2018, when the investigation was opened, the FAA told the carrier "it was repeatedly reported that ground operations personnel and / or air operations officers were not following the Southwest Airlines procedures for entering correct and complete weight information "before takeoff. One of the first documents called it a "high-risk problem."

The inaccuracies prompted quick responses from the FAA and were considered serious enough to force Southwest to physically check the number of baggage unloaded daily from 25% of its flights. This sample was then reduced to 15% at the request of Southwest. The airline continues to provide daily status reports to the agency.

In rare cases, FAA documents referred to flights with cargo loading differences totaling more than one tonne. Southwest stated that it could not comment on the weight issues associated with a flight due to the confidentiality requirements for voluntary event reporting.

In some documents, Southwest has stated that an error resulting in a take-off weight of less than 1,500 pounds should be considered within safe limits. In other documents, the airline said that an error of up to 10,000 pounds would represent a minor risk. Several current and former masters of Boeing 737 have stated that they would consider that the larger mass deviation is dangerous on which to rely for take-off calculations. Southwest said all of its planes are generally designed to take off at weights over 150,000 pounds.

The investigation is complicated by the fact that the FAA office in the Dallas area that oversees the southwest is being scrutinized by the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation. This audit is focused on the allegations Local office officials have been overly compliant with Southwest's demands, which has had an impact on many issues other than weight calculations. In the past, the FAA has stated that it welcomed the audit, calling it "an opportunity to improve what is already the safest aerospace system in the world" and adding that The audit is "designed to identify potential risks before they become serious problems".

Write to Andy Pasztor at [email protected]

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