Months before an airborne accident claimed the life of a Southwest Airlines passenger, the Federal Aviation Administration found that distrust between managers and mechanics at Southwest’s Dallas maintenance base was so bad, FAA investigators feared it could put passengers at risk.
In an investigation of whistleblower complaints from Southwest mechanics, the FAA determined that Southwest supervisors discouraged mechanics from reporting some aircraft problems and that supervisors questioned mechanics when they found maintenance issues beyond portions of the plane they had been assigned to inspect.
In late October, the FAA reported that Southwest management’s questioning of mechanics appeared to be, “... 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.”
It added: “The result of this pattern is a capitulation of airworthiness and a culture of fear and retribution. Some personnel have resorted to photographing their findings ... as a tool to ensure they can prove what they discovered in the event they are questioned by management.”
The FAA did not find that any Southwest planes flew in an unsafe condition or that the airline violated any FAA rules. But the investigators' comments portrayed a broken safety culture inside two of Southwest’s large maintenance operations.
The FAA made its findings six months before a woman, who was on a SWA flight from New York to Dallas, was partially pulled out of a window that had been broken out by flying debris from a malfunctioning engine. She later died at a hospital. Investigators from the NTSB have not yet determined what caused a fan blade in the engine to break loose and the 2017 whistleblower complaints did not touch on any issues related to engine fan blades.
In Dallas, the FAA’s whistleblower investigation found one Southwest mechanic was questioned rather than praised after he discovered corrosion on a critical part that balanced the airplane rudder – a problem that was ultimately found on several Southwest Airlines planes.
“And instead of praising him and saying thanks for finding the corrosion, he was subjected to a disciplinary interrogation,” Lee Seham, a union attorney representing the whistleblowers, told NBC 5 Investigates.
“The FAA reacted to that with alarm,” Seham said.
In a separate whistleblower investigation at Los Angeles International Airport last year, the FAA found what it described as “the absence of a ‘Just Safety’ culture” in Southwest’s maintenance operation at LAX.
In that investigation, the FAA noted that mechanics had filed their whistleblower complaints at a time when the mechanics’ union was in a heated contract battle with airline management, raising questions about whether the complaints were motivated by contract issues.
But the FAA said it was concerned that disagreements between mechanics and management could spill over impacting safety, saying: “There seems to be a lack of an environment of trust, effective communication and the willingness for employees to share mistakes, concerns or failures without the fear of threats or reprisals."
“This ultimately leads to a degraded level of safety,” the FAA said.
In prepared statements to NBC 5 Investigates, Southwest Airlines said safety is its top priority and that the company has no tolerance for bullying or intimidation.
Responding to the FAA’s findings in the Dallas case, Southwest said, “Southwest's Culture of Safety does not align with the comments made by the individual FAA employee who conducted the investigation. Nothing is more important in our business than Safety and, as such, compliance is always our theme."
It continued, “... we continuously work to create and foster a Culture of Safety that proactively identifies and manages risks to the operation and workplace…While we do expect our mechanics to work their assigned tasks, we do not prohibit employees from raising safety concerns at any time and, in fact, encourage the reporting of safety concerns through our 24-hour automated Safety Reporting System ... We are confident that our workplace climate promotes Safety each and every day.”
Ed Libassi, a veteran aircraft mechanic, told NBC 5 Investigates that labor disputes, tight airline schedules and expensive repairs can all create friction between union workers and management. But Libassi’s company worked on Southwest Airlines planes in New York for more than a decade.
“And at no time ... did Southwest ever, ever ask me deviate, sign off or turn a blind eye to something that I had found. And that’s the honest truth,” Libassi said.
The FAA did not take enforcement action against Southwest Airlines because it did not find any rules were violated. In fact, Southwest said the FAA did not even formally provide the airline a copy of the investigation report. But the FAA said it did assign additional inspectors to Southwest’s maintenance stations last year.
"The FAA reports did not result in any actions for Southwest. The quotes were pulled from an internal FAA document that was not formally provided to Southwest and as the report states, it did not result any specific actions for Southwest. Aside from the report, we continuously work to create and foster a Culture of Safety that proactively identifies and manages risks to the operation and workplace," the airline said.
The agency told NBC 5 Investigates the increased staffing of inspectors “is common during contentious labor negotiations and other situations that might lead to potential concerns about safety.”