Alarmed, But Not Surprised, By OIG Report on Major Southwest Airlines Safety Failings

CENTENNIAL, CO –February 13, 2020 — The report from the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (OIG) this week found the FAA has not “effectively overseen” Southwest Airlines. As the union representing the expert mechanics tasked with keeping Southwest Airlines’ passengers and crew safe, we are sadly not surprised by these findings. They represent precisely the sort of degradation of safety culture we’ve been publicly and privately warning about for years. As the union representing Southwest’s expert mechanics, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) are not surprised by these substantiated findings.

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AMFA has expressed our concerns verbally and in writing, publicly and privately, to senior executives at Southwest for years — about the degradation of safety culture, Safety Management System, and more, which was documented and substantiated by the FAA inspectors and field investigators for years. The culture of safety at Southwest Airlines is deficient, as evidenced by OIG findings. In fact, the OIG report just scratches the surface of the issue.

Because air travel has had an extraordinary safety record over the past decade, it has become easy to dismiss legitimate warnings. But while Southwest has been lulled into complacency given how their lax safety behavior has not resulted in more incidents, we don’t want to wait for a tragic but avoidable incident to occur before this gets taken seriously.

“We don’t ever want our warnings to the industry and regulators about safety to come true, hence why we have fought so hard to be heard,” said Bret Oestreich, AMFA National Director. “But the truth is that Southwest should never put profit before people’s safety. Maintenance is key to running a safe and profitable airline, and quality maintenance should never be ignored. AMFA is a stakeholder, Southwest has to be willing to engage us.”

A Southwest spokesperson dismissed the findings, saying, “Any implication that we would tolerate a relaxing of standards is absolutely unfounded.”

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But the OIG report, and our own first-hand experience, says otherwise. “The safety culture at Southwest Airlines consists of using ‘diversion, distraction and power’ to get what the company wants,” said one FAA employee in the report.

And that’s an accurate summary of so much of the issue recently with the profits over safety mentality the Southwest leadership has moved toward in recent years. More than a dozen whistleblowers have felt compelled to come forward and speak to the FAA about fear of retaliation for raising legitimate safety concerns. Expert mechanics at Southwest are being punished for self-reporting safety issues when utilizing the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), rather than being encouraged to do so. ASAP is a three party voluntary program, with Southwest, AMFA and the FAA. The purpose of ASAP is to identify safety deficiencies by receiving information from mechanics without fear of punitive actions. As noted in an FAA investigation finding, “…there is the Absence of a ‘Just safety Culture’ within the management. Safety Promotion, a key part of an effective SMS (Safety Management System) seems to be deficient. 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 reprisal. This ultimately leads to a degraded level of safety that the SMS is trying to maintain at the highest possible level.” Also, as noted by the OIG report, “FAA defines safety culture as the shared values, actions, and behaviors that demonstrate a commitment to safety over competing goals and demands.”

The company’s actions have demonstrated the fact that there is a degraded level of safety. This lack of commitment is demonstrated by Southwest favoring ongoing litigation against AMFA over addressing legitimate safety concerns.

This should be a wake-up call for all the leadership of Southwest Airlines. A chance to work together to fix the glaring issues raised in the OIG report, and by our expert mechanics over the years. However from the public comments of Southwest in the wake of this report, it appears they are instead going to continue to divert and distract, just as the FAA employee noticed is their norm.

The invitation to work together with Southwest on reversing the degradation of safety culture remains open. We are a national leader in safety, and want to help. The OIG report confirmed what we already knew — and broadcast it to a national audience. The time for change is now.

We encourage everyone to read the full report here.

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Founded in 1962, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association is a craft oriented, independent aviation union. AMFA represents licensed and unlicensed technicians and related employees actively involved in the aviation industry. These technician and related employees work directly on aircraft and/or components, support equipment, and facilities. AMFA is committed to elevating the professional standing of technicians and to achieving progressive improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions of the skilled craftsmen and women it represents. For more information about AMFA visit www.amfanational.org.

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We are independent Aircraft Maintenance Technicians committed to the highest safety standards. Safety in the Air Begins with Quality Maintenance on the Ground.

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