Southwest Airlines said it was disappointed with a draft report of a government audit that claimed the Dallas-based carrier failed to prioritize safety by flying millions of passengers on planes with unresolved safety concerns, saying "our friends, our families board our aircraft and not a single one of us would put anything above their safety."
The draft report by the Department of Transportation's inspector general, seen by The Wall Street Journal, found Southwest pilots flew more than 17 million passengers on planes with "unconfirmed" maintenance records over roughly two years.
The government report outlines an 18-month inquiry that characterized the FAA's oversight of the Dallas-based carrier as "lax, ineffective and inconsistent,” according to the newspaper.
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Southwest told the WSJ it "strongly disagrees with 'unsubstantiated references to Southwest's Safety Culture,'" the report said. The airline issued the following statement to NBC 5.
"We have communicated our disappointment in the draft audit report to the OIG and will continue to communicate any concerns directly with its office. Southwest maintains a culture of compliance, recognizing the Safety of our operation as the most important thing we do. We are proud of our Safety Culture, which includes proactive, non-punitive processes for reporting, including the opportunity for anonymous reports. We are considered one of the world's most admired companies and uphold an unprecedented safety record."
"As part of our Safety Culture, we have a transparent relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which includes an FAA-Approved Safety Management System designed to manage and mitigate operational risks and execute safe operating programs and practices. Our operational systems are built to meet or exceed all regulatory requirements and our Safety Management System is integrated into all of our operational practices in order to evaluate and continuously improve Safety performance."
"Our friends, our families board our aircraft and not a single one of us would put anything above their safety - this mission unites us all. The success of our business depends, in and of itself, on the Safety of our operation, and while we work to improve each and every day, any implication that we would tolerate a relaxing of standards is absolutely unfounded."
NBC 5 has not seen the unreleased draft report and cannot verify the details of the Wall Street Journal story.
For months, the FAA has been under intense scrutiny over whether its inspectors were lenient with Boeing, maker of two 737 MAX planes that crashed within five months of each other, killing a total of 346 people.
“I think there is a lot of consternation going on, a lot of concern within the FAA,” Dallas aviation attorney David Norton said.
Norton said the FAA faces challenges maintaining independence as its inspectors work within the companies they inspect.
“It’s human nature that as you get to know people, you are going to give them the benefit of the doubt,” he said, adding, “And at what point have you given them too much of the benefit of the doubt.”
The FAA previously raised concerns about the safety culture at Southwest, in a report obtained by NBC 5 Investigates in 2018.
It said FAA officials, acting on whistleblower complaints within the airlines, found supervisors pressured mechanics to not report some maintenance issues.
But the FAA said no planes took off in unsafe condition.
At the time, Southwest said it had no tolerance for intimidation and that nothing is more important than safety.
In a statement released late Thursday, the FAA said safety is its “top priority.”
“Upon learning of concerns about how certain aircraft were added to Southwest Airline’s fleet, the agency took comprehensive action. In addition to actions aimed at ensuring the safety of the aircraft, the FAA appointed a new leadership team” at Southwest, FAA said in the statement.
It added, “The FAA continues to closely monitor these issues.”