A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official wrote a memo last month saying that Southwest Airlines Co should ground 49 of its airliners because repairs were performed that didn’t meet legal standards.
There is “a high likelihood of a violation of a regulation, order or standard” of the FAA, and the US regulator needs to take immediate action to revoke the certification of the planes, said H Clayton Foushee, the agency’s director of the Office of Audit and Evaluation. The letter was released by the US Senate.
The FAA wrote to Southwest days later ordering the airline to speed up inspections of Boeing Co’s 737 NG planes, which were previously owned by foreign carriers. But it has stopped short of requiring that the planes be grounded. The agency said in a statement that a risk assessment had concluded the airline had taken appropriate measures.
The dispute within the agency over the status of the planes comes as the Transportation Department’s Inspector General completes an audit of FAA’s oversight of airline maintenance and as lawmakers assess whistle-blower claims that the agency hasn’t been aggressive enough.
The FAA is also under fire for its approval of the 737 Max, the newest model of Boeing’s single-aisle workhorse, which has been grounded since March after two fatal crashes.
Senator Roger Wicker, the Missouri Republican who is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, wrote to the FAA saying he finds the situation “troubling.” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told employees in a weekly message that the company had found that “a small number of repairs on a few of these aircraft” had been performed but not properly classified by the previous owners. In some cases language differences or repair criteria were to blame, Kelly said.
“Our continuous assessments of the ongoing inspections has revealed nothing to warrant the expedited timeline,” Kelly said of the FAA action, but Southwest remains on track to have them completed by the end of January.
In its letter to Southwest, the FAA said it was considering additional action including grounding the planes if the carrier couldn’t justify the safety of its fleet.
Concerns over whether the planes — of a group of 88 obtained since 2013 from carriers in countries including Kenya, Colombia and Russia — meet safety requirements has been dogging Southwest for more than a year. The airline grounded 34 of the planes last year during the busy Thanksgiving travel period over issues with repair records.
As of October 4, Southwest had performed thorough inspections of 39 of the 88 planes, Foushee said in his memo. Of those, 24 were found to have “significant airworthiness issues,” he said. The issues included previously unknown repairs and major maintenance found to have been done improperly, he said.
Numerous FAA inspectors in the office overseeing Southwest have told Foushee’s office that “they are no longer comfortable with the current corrective action plan,” he said.
Boeing surges most over Max comeback optimism
Boeing Co jumped after providing more detail on how the 737 Max will return to the skies — even as the company backed away from earlier assurances that the grounded jet would win full regulatory approval by year-end.
The FAA is on track to certify redesigned flight-control software by mid-December, Boeing spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. That could enable the planemaker to begin shipping new jets that have been stashed across the Pacific Northwest and Texas during a flying ban imposed in March after two crashes killed 346 people.
But the Max won’t be cleared to resume commercial flights until regulators also sign off on updated training material for pilots — a step Boeing expects in January. And the company acknowledged it will take time for airlines to ready stored jets for service and work them back into flight schedules.
“We continue to see the global average Max RTS in March 2020,” Bank of America Corp analyst Ron Epstein said.