Southwest Airlines received special treatment from the Federal Aviation Administration in expediting the approval process to begin Hawaii service last year, according to a whistleblower complaint.
The federal Office of Special Counsel “found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” by FAA employees, The Wall Street Journal reported today after examining documents between the counsel’s staff and the whistleblower.
The employee alleged that FAA managers engaged in “gross mismanagement and an abuse of authority” for “the financial benefit of the airline,” the paper said, citing the counsel’s summary.
The whistleblower alleged that FAA managers held Southwest pilots and officials “to a lower standard than they otherwise would have been” and cut corners by bringing in FAA employees to observe all six demonstration flights who lacked the necessary 737 pilot licenses and had less specific knowledge about Southwest operations than local FAA employees, according to the counsel’s summary.
Hawaii residents had been eagerly anticipating the launch of service from the Dallas-based discount carrier to provide competition to incumbent Hawaiian Airlines. Likewise, Southwest often said its regular passengers were looking forward to the opportunity to fly to Hawaii. But the process was delayed by a 35-day partial federal government shutdown that began in December.
At that time, Southwest was awaiting ETOPS certification on its Boeing 737-800 that would permit the airline to fly on extended overwater routes hours away from emergency airports. ETOPS stands for Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards.
FAA managers increased pressure to meet accelerated deadlines once federal employees returned to work after the furloughs, according to the complaint.
The focus on the FAA comes at an inopportune time for the federal agency, which also is under the spotlight for its previous approval of Boeing’s 737 Max that has intensified following two fatal crashes. Southwest has said it plans eventually to use the Max in its Hawaii service.
Southwest said today in an email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that it was granted ETOPS authorization through the same centralized and standardized FAA approval process that all airlines are required to follow.
”Our quest for achieving authorization was a 14-month deliberate and stringent process that followed all FAA guidance for establishing a program that fully satisfies each of the certification requirements and unequivocally adheres to all FAA regulations,” the airline said in a statement. “Similarly, FAA oversight of the process was equally thorough and stringent. The assurance data from our initial year, accumulated though our FAA-approved Safety Management System, includes thousands of ETOPS flights and validates the Safety of our ETOPS operations, while substantiating the integrity of our process.”
Southwest, which reports its fourth-quarter and full-year earnings before the stock market opens Thursday, has been exuberant on its earnings conference calls about the success of its new Hawaii service.
“The demand for our service to Hawaii continues to be very, very strong and our load factors continue to exceed our system average,” Southwest President Tom Nealon said on the company’s third-quarter conference call in October. “The demand for our interisland service is also very strong. And this also includes a very strong mix of local customers, which we’re thrilled about.”
Southwest, which launched trans-Pacific service between Hawaii and California on March 17, will have 14 round-trip flights as of April when it begins flights to and from San Diego. As of last weekend, when Southwest added Hilo flights and new service between Kahului and Kona, it is up to 38 daily departures on interisland service. Southwest began interisland service on April 28.